July 12, 2014

Kansas City’s Westport area is bouncing back big

When the sparkling Power & Light District opened six years ago, many heralded it as the rebirth of the long-dormant downtown.

When the sparkling Power & Light District opened six years ago, many heralded it as the rebirth of the long-dormant downtown.

But over in midtown, many of Westport’s bar and restaurant owners weren’t so happy.

They said it would draw customers away and dilute their revenues, and it did. That, combined with the faltering economy and increasing reports of crime, had the Westport area struggling to remain vibrant.

But Westport, which first prospered in the mid-1800s as the “eastern portal of the western trails,” is undergoing a renaissance.

A dozen locally owned restaurants and bars – some that had their pick of locations all over town – have opened in the last few months or are planning to join the lineup. Westport hasn’t seen so many new tenants in such a short span for nearly two decades.

These more gentrified establishments are focusing on chef-driven menus and craft cocktails and beers. One stylish venue specializes in champagne, another whiskey cocktails. Another new operation has a certified cicerone to oversee beer and food pairings.

“Westport is definitely changing, and we are going to push it in that direction,” said Howard Hanna, a partner in the new Westport champagne bar Ca Va. “We aren’t going to hurt anyone; we are going to complement what is already here. There is a need for something a little bit subdued, a little quieter, unique and approachable.”

An image makeover

Westport has long been the metro’s entertainment draw for its rowdy party scene, central location and walkability.

But in the last few years, it has had to compete with the Power & Light District, built on the doorstep of the Sprint Center, and with urban and suburban neighborhood entertainment areas.

So Westport’s leaders have worked to change the district’s image.

To address safety concerns, policing efforts have increased, and this summer Westport merchants are spending about $100,000 to improve the district’s camera security system.

Merchants think their security and street-scaping efforts and a dozen new restaurants and bars will make the area a destination for the “foodie” generation that wants to savor the best in food and drink.

In the last few years, other more food-driven venues have joined Bluestem, including the Beer Kitchen, the modern French restaurant Westport Cafe and Bar, and the popular Port Fonda. The most recent crop of local bar and restaurant entrepreneurs wants to be near these like-minded operators in the historic Westport setting.

The new investment goes beyond food and drink establishments.

The owner of Volume 1ne, a new sneaker and street fashion boutique, spent several months creating a contemporary retail space in the heart of Westport.

New owners also converted the Westport Holiday Inn Express on the west end of Westport to 816 Hotel with a historic Kansas City theme. Across the street, new owners also closed Q Hotel and Spa in June for an extensive renovation, to be completed in October. It will then reopen as AC Hotels by Marriott Kansas City Westport.

Funded by taxes

A critical component in Westport’s recent rebirth was the establishment of a community improvement district a decade ago, officials said. Its annual $1.4 million budget is financed by a property tax surcharge that the landlords imposed on themselves, along with a half-cent additional charge on sales in the district.

Westport has used the funds to spiff up its streetscape. The funds also pay several contract employees to maintain the area. But the majority of the funds are used to pay a Westport security staff, as well as off-duty police officers patrolling the area.

“We work very closely with the Kansas City Police Department on a plan for public safety and how that plan will be implemented,” said Jon Engelman, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, a group of local business and property owners.

The community improvement district also is updating its security camera system so it can allow the police to remotely access Westport’s cameras. The new system will be rolled out in phases this summer and be fully installed by spring 2015.

Working together

In the past, some Westport business owners competed for the same customers. If one had a successful “margarita night,” a neighboring bar would start offering one too.

But instead of competing, the current entrepreneurs consider themselves on the same Westport team and can often be found patronizing area venues.

Still, with a dozen new venues in the mix, can they all survive?

“I hope they can all make it,” said Aaron Confessori, co-owner of Westport Cafe and Bar. “At the same time, it’s a good mix. Some doing food, some doing mostly cocktails, most complementary rather than competitive.”

The new venues have also created a buzz for the district that benefits existing businesses.

Westport Cafe and Bar reported that its sales were up 30 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period in 2013. Kelly’s Westport Inn, which opened in 1947, went from “horrible” sales for the two years following the Power & Light District’s opening to record years in 2012 and 2013, according to the owners. This year is setting up to be another good one.

“We’ve had our highs and lows – mobs and mobs and mobs of people that would gather on the weekend; crime was really bad,” Garrelts of Bluestem said. “But that has completely changed. It’s not just a bar neighborhood anymore. You are seeing BMWs, Mercedes and Johnson County people coming down.”

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