Saturday, May 3, 2008
"An Idea" by the Graduit
A NOTE FROM GREG WALTERS: THE FOLLOWING COLUMN IS BY A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO THE RAYTOWN REPORT, THE GRADUIT. A LOT OF THOUGHT OBVIOUSLY WENT INTO WRITING IT. I FELT IT WORTH PUBLISHING. SO, WITHOUT ANY FURTHER ADO, HERE IS "AN IDEA" by THE GRADUIT. I've been doing some thinking about Raytown's downtown redevelopment, and I think that maybe we've been approaching this problem from the wrong direction. Raytown used to be a respected member of the metropolitan area. Our streets were safe, our schools were second to none. Many members of the Kansas City Athletics and Royals used to call Raytown home. My dentist, Dr. Brock, had signed photographs of the Kansas City Chiefs all over his waiting room because he was their dentist, too. Many of these athletes built beautiful homes that still are assets to the community. After the levy increase, they're now even greater assets than before. But I never felt any stigma living in Raytown or attending Raytown Schools. We were as good as anybody, and better than some. Raytown had better housing construction and building codes than Prairie Village or any city in Johnson county for example, because Raytown used union labor to construct our housing and no plastic pressure side plumbing nor cinder-block foundations. Unlike Lenexa, there are no houses in Raytown that were built with aluminum interior wiring. Not to intentionally gloss over the problems that existed back then, but they pale in comparison to the mountain of barriers to progress that we have before us now. My understanding is that, sometime in the late 70s, Carol Burnett was pulled over for speeding by a Raytown cop and rather than let her off because she was Carol Burnett, he wrote her a ticket. Ms. Burnett was apparently not used to being treated like this by anybody, much less by rube hick cops from Missouri, and so she started a skit on her show making fun of how backward and stupid anybody who would live in a town called Raytown had to be. The recurring skit was popular and eventually was spun-off for a six-year run on NBC and CBS syndication. Maybe it's still playing somewhere in reruns, I don't know. While Mama's Family might not be the sole responsible catalyst, I think that the TV show ridiculing the residents of a fictitious Raytown coincided with a decline in Raytown's image among the rest of the Metropolitan area. People are so suggestible, as we already know. Randy Miller recorded a song called "Raytown Sally" making fun of the girls here in Raytown, to the tune of Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally." I can recall several of my friends over the years from Overland Park and sundry points west attempting to make fun of me for living in Raytown. Did I live next door to Mama's Family? Yuk, yuk. Which I responded by ridiculing them for even watching a show that seemed like a total waste of time to me. But then, I didn't watch any television back then so I felt that way about everything that was on the airwaves. However, apparently the show had many fans, as any show that survives for six seasons must. Vicki Lawrence in her autobiography states that the show was located in Raytown, Missouri. In an episode called "Mama learns to drive," they show a Missouri license plate. Any way you slice it, there's only one Raytown, Missouri, and we're it. It's a fact that the town being make fun of was this one, and we can't hide from it. Denial just makes it worse. I occasionally still get people in other states who, upon hearing that I'm in Raytown, mention Mama's Family. Amazing, but for a substantial portion of the population of the United States, if you mention Raytown they think of Mama's Family and Lower Hicksville. The power of the mass media can be an incredible thing. Downtown Raytown has no easy highway access to the rest of the metropolitan area. The big stores aren't going to invest here, so we're going to have to depend on small merchants to revitalize it. Also, there are very few hundred year old buildings still standing to attempt a true historic downtown development. This has been a fairly long-winded prelude, but here's my suggestion: We designate downtown as the Mama's Family Heritage District. One of the running gags on Mama's Family was all the variation of Ray- based and redneck businesses that were frequented by the characters. There's a partial list of these businesses and places here. Some of these names and plays on the redneck culture are pretty darn funny and are actually parodies of the real Raytown and our Santa Fe Trail heritage. The "Wagon's Hoe Trailer Park" cracked me up, for example. The undeniable fact is that Raytown was one of the stars of the show. We have six years worth of Hollywood writers' gags and riffs on the name Raytown and the redneck culture and lifestyle as a head start. Granted, "Mama's Family" was no "Beverly Hillbillies" in terms of writing talent, but you've got to play the hand you're dealt. Embracing a stereotype for profit has been very successful for several locations. Look at Branson, for example. They've run with the Ozark Hillbilly thing, all the way to the bank. I haven't noticed anybody in Branson complaining about the town's image, they're too busy counting their cash. Branson is a treasure trove of investors and experienced businessmen who have gotten rich from exploiting and defining their particular native flavor of backwoods hillbilly culture. I would think that a few Branson developers might be willing to take a look at Raytown as an untapped opportunity when viewed from this angle. We can go all the way back to Nashville, Tennessee for another example of a town being dragged kicking and screaming downscale. WSM radio, owned by an insurance company (We Shield Millions) had a staid and serious opera program on Saturday afternoons in the 1920s. Then, because their Hillbilly music show came on after the operatic program and the producers felt somewhat intimidated having to follow such august music, they started calling it "The Grand Ol' Opry," to highlight the contrast with the preceding "serious" music rather than attempt to ignore it. This information is provided in an excellent book about the history of business in Nashville, "Fortunes, Fiddles and Fried Chicken." The conservatives on the Board thought the whole radio station was a colossal waste of money, but they were luckily overruled. It took some time before the Board would allow anything but high cultured music to be broadcast on their station. They were a serious insurance company, and they shall have a serious radio station. But soon after the Grand Ol' Oprey started broadcasting it became the most popular show on radio. Insurance representatives would wander the streets on Saturday night writing down addresses that had strains of the Grand Ol' Opry wafting out of the pre-airconditioning open windows. Then they'd knock on the door the next week and mention that they'd heard them listening to the Opry the other night, start up a conversation and give them a promotional card from the Opry with pictures of the performers. Photos of the radio performers were quite unexpected and rare, and were usually the first time people learned what the Opry stars looked like. A foot in the door, big time. What kind of an investment did that radio station turn out to be? They Made Millions. Nobody remembers the serious opera programs on WSM any more, and Nashville has become since the 1930s, "Country Music, USA." There are those in Nashville that resent it's county music image, but even they do not complain about all the commerce that flows through town resulting from of what is commonly referred to there as "The Industry." The parallel that I am drawing here is with Los Angeles, where film and television is referred to as "The Business." It defines the public image of the town. Well, our public image has been defined for us, and it's not one of our choosing. Ray Charles used to assume a persona that he called "Country Dumb." When all these slick fast talking promoters came around playing him for a fool, he'd listen to what they said and pretend to be a rube suckered in by their scams but he never signed anything. He just learned what game they were trying to run and who his friends really were. Maybe we in Raytown aren't as smart as we seem to think, and we're definitely nowhere near as smart as Ray Charles, because we've come out on the short end of every fast-talking promotional scam that we've gotten into the last ten years or so. I don't condemn the leadership here in Raytown for this, as there are very few people throughout history who are as smart as Ray Charles. Now, I already know that this idea goes against everything that the current political clubs in Raytown stand for because they seem to be mostly about flash and slogans and scratching your friends' backs. But the plan for Sports Stadium tie-in with the shuttles from Downtown Raytown to the stadia hasn't worked out so well. Why not? Possibly because there is no Hostelry in Downtown Raytown, and sports bars are a dime a dozen anywhere. Major league sports fans seem to want upscale, flashy, slick. Why should you go two miles out of your way, or even two steps out of your way, to go to another generic Sports Bar? Let's face it, the whole country is becoming a homogenized blur of National Chains and Box Stores. Local color is disappearing fast. The United States of Generica. But guess what, the big guys are not building in Raytown anyway unless WE PAY THEM to do it. This looks like a sustainable development plan for Raytown? Any farmer, and I mean ANY farmer, will tell you that giving away the farm is a lousy business plan, even if a $100,000 consultant won't. But what if, while visiting Kansas City, you could go to Downtown Raytown and stay at the Ray-mada Inn and get a beer at the "Quitters and Losers" Bar, along with six T-shirts for your friends back home? That's probably not going to happen anywhere else but in Raytown. Embrace what makes us unique. We're surrounded by hundreds of miles of Rural America on all compass points, where they're mostly convinced the city folks Just Don't Get It. It certainly seems that they have a valid point. Redneck culture is on an upswing. Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy. Get-R-Done. Nascar. We've got a new shiny Bass Pro Shop right down I-70. Nowadays there are Bass Pro Shops springing up all over the place, but there's only one Raytown. We're it. Top of the Heap, King of the Hill, A-Number One. Promote our Raytown brand. We get free advertising right on I-70 by the sports stadiums on the Interstate signs. I think that it's conceivable that, with the right promotion, we could become a "must see" stop on this kinetic redneck culture gravy train. And the great thing is, we don't have to raze everything and start over, it's already here. Rednecks-R-Us. Maybe we need a political entity called "Raytown Reaching for Yesterday" to symbolize an attempt to get back to the core small town american values that are viewed as naive but are comfortable and familiar to everyone in a world that suddenly became a much scarier place in September 2001. So, get the KC Metro to paint their Raytown Bus up as Rayhound Bus Lines. Put fake Ray-based business signs over the empty storefronts in the Plaza until they fill up. Rayvis Rent-a-Car. KRAY Radio/TV Station. Ray-mart. Roy's Bait and Camera. Maybe build an amphitheater on the Baptist Church site, and have concerts and shows when there's a game in town. Raytown's Redneck Starlight Theatre, the RayLight Theatre. Actually, we could have used the Baptist Church for this as it stands, but the rumor is that the interior has deteriorated beyond a salvageable state now. Contact Vicki Lawrence and see if any props from the series are still around to be possibly be donated to the Raytown Historical Society. Set up a replica Mama's Family set down there, and have a DVD of some of the old shows. Sell souvenier copies of "Gun & Tire" magazine. Probably all the old junk they used for sets and props out in California was tossed years ago, but we don't need their fake Raytown stuff anyway...We've got REAL Raytown stuff. Surely somebody has a threadbare Lay-Z-Boy that we can borrow. (Or my personal favorite brand, Ray-Z-Boy). I'll bet the Raytown Historical Society would have more visitors in a few weeks than they have now in a year. Maybe we could fly Ms. Lawrence out herself for a Grand Opening Ceremony of the new Downtown district. She made a living for six years making fun of us, she must owe us something. Failing that, maybe Mama Ray is available. Put up a historic marker wherever it was that Carol Burnett was pulled over. It was probably on 50 highway, so build a pocket park there. Most historic markers commemorate things that are difficult to envision or relate to, but I think most everybody here can envision and relate to being pulled over by the Raytown Cops; it would probably be the first such historic marker in the whole world. Have fun with it. You could put up a second historic marker pointing out that the first historic marker was the world's first historic marker commemorating a traffic ticket. The wording on this might be tricky. Put up signs at various places designating them Mama's Family landmarks. Have more fun with it. Get Ken Blom to put up a sign at his hidden lake, designating it "Lake Rayochobee." Heck, I'll even donate a couple of spare cars from my front yard to scatter around for atmosphere. See if MaMa China will change a few letters on their sign to be "MaMa's Dina." With a paintbrush, El Maguey could become "El MagRey." I'm not sure how those names translate into Mandarin and Spanish, but we'll worry about that later. Spread some TIFs out to the people who make Raytown better, not those who will make Raytown worse. I do recognize that this idea is way out from the mainstream. Supposedly the two most common fears of mankind are fear of heights and fear of public speaking. My theory about the public speaking phobia is that it's an offshoot from the fear of being publicly ridiculed, although I have no real evidence to back this up. Maybe it's time to start laughing with those who view Raytown as Backwatersville, USA. For too long we've been sucking the lemons of this Raytown stereotype. Maybe now the time is ripe for us to make lemonade. Okay, so how realistic is this plan? Aye, there's the rub. Do I think that it could work? Maybe, but it's a totally unproven concept. The problem with the Branson, Nashville and Hollywood comparisons is that the industries existed first and then the image followed. Here we've got the image but must supply the industry. I'm sure that if you pay somebody $20,000 for a feasability study, it'll come back as a resounding no. Nobody has ever tried something like this before, so there's no blueprint nor cost-analysis to put into a powepoint and project an earnings chart from. That scares all the accountants off. I consider this a net plus, as I don't like accountants. I also don't understand what value there is in an MBA because if you put a handful of MBAs around a table, you already know exactly what they're going to say. Also no town has ever been the butt of jokes nationally for thirty years before, so I also think that fact has to skew the numbers a bit. On the plus side, this idea couldn't possibly fail any worse than the last two downtown renovation plans have. It also contains a great deal more imagination. If we really tried to do this, the media might just jump all over it because of the novelty. "Decaying Town attempts to Revive Downtown District" isn't much of a story, it's happening everywhere. But the man-bites-dog flavor of "Raytown Examines Plan to Remake Itself in the Image of Mama's Family: Projected Cost is Free" is surely worth a few column inches. Come for the laughs, stay for the fun. It would be up to us to make it fun. But, do I think that it WILL work? Sadly, No. I don't really think that it will work here because it would require imagination and and vision and cooperation at a level that is far beyond anything that we've seen out of City Hall since probably ever. We've gotten so tied up in back-scratching and rat-sniping here in Raytown that we probably deserve the image that we have. And that's sad. Also, since it takes years to agree even to look at recycling, which nobody should be against in this day and age, I have zero confidence that such a far-reaching, visionary, untested and frankly wacko idea would ever get approved by this BOA in Raytown. The horrid stench of the Charter fight fills me with dispair about anything being done without a swarm of sabotaging locusts tearing the guts out of any honest civic minded proposal. To have any chance of success, a nutty plan like this would have to be approached with vision and humor. These two things have proven to be in excruciatingly short supply here in Raytown City Government. Another thing that Raytown has in its favor is the fact that it is an inner-ring suburb, and with energy prices reaching for the stratosphere this will become more important with every gasoline price increase. I also do sort of like the "Raytown Reaching for Yesterday" idea, maybe we need to instead go back to the place that we used to be, except without the racism. After all, we've got a lot of history out here. Maybe history has more value in Raytown Missouri than the future does. Perhaps a quiet revolution is more apropo for Raytown. After all, what does the future hold? It holds whatever we decide that it holds. So, that's it. That's my idea. Anybody have any better ones?