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Local non-profit visionary restores vacant lots through creative engagement, neighborhood resources 

By Sarah Benal

In 2021 Carl Stafford was recognized as an "Innovator to Watch" by Grinnell College for his innovative efforts to rectify damage created by redlining, systematic divesting, and environmental degradation in Kansas City. Photo by Carl Stafford. 

Born and raised on the west side of District 5 in Kansas City, Missouri, Carl Stafford is the founder and visionary of MY REGION WINS!(MRW!) Kansas City’s Creative 501c3 not-for-profit whose mission is to transcend everyday challenges by using the Arts to nurture creative and undeveloped ideas that shape society. His vision is to have the Arts and Nature sitting prominently at the table to address environmental and social injustice issues. Carl’s current focus: reestablishing a vibrant District 5.

‘Revive the west side of District 5’ is one of MRW!’s projects created through a partnership with Heartland Conservation Alliance (HCA) in 2020. The west side of District 5 used to have attractions such as an amusement park with a drive-in, bowling alleys, arcades, and even a mall. But a 100-year plan established in 1945 eliminated those amenities in District 5 as well as District 3 and the northeast part of District 4, leaving vacant and blighted lots throughout the neighborhoods.

At the end of 2019, Jill Erickson, HCA’s former Executive Director asked Carl what were the goals for MRW! in 2020. “From blight to BOON! Revive the west side of District 5.” was Carl’s answer. He dreamed of creating a new 100-year plan to address the neighborhoods’ losses and disinvestment.

“The lack of “optimizing opportunities” is apparent on the west side of District 5; as well as in other districts” Carl said. “There are a number of blighted or vacant properties owned by Land Bank and KC Housing Authority. Some of these properties are in business zones which could generate revenue. Most of them have been blighted or vacant for decades.” Carl points out the Land Bank was created to manage the blighted vacant properties. “Why wouldn’t the city and the neighborhood work together to address these properties?”

Most of the properties need their grass cut. Land Bank contracts lawn companies, and while most of these companies already have other residential or business properties, they tend to see these blighted or vacant lots as a means for quick cash. But the companies pay little attention to these lots since they are considered blighted or vacant and are located in disinvested neighborhoods. Trash is cut up with the grass, the grass grows up to 12” before it’s cut, the cut grass is blown on the sidewalks, making the sidewalks less accessible and grass clippings are blown into the street, causing issues with stormwater management.

Carl suggests that Land Bank can be intentional by compensating the neighborhoods these blighted or vacant properties are in, then the neighborhoods can identify and stipend residents for tending to the blighted and vacant lots. These actions would show Land Bank and the City of Kansas City sees its neighborhoods and residents as assets. This would eliminate the need for lawn maintenance companies to travel, and the lot would receive care and attention from the people who are directly affected by the lot. This practice would also encourage other residents to participate in the maintenance and in their neighborhood. The neighborhood could even have the opportunity to obtain the property from Land Bank. Under the care of the residents, the vacant lot could become an asset within the neighborhood to generate revenue for the neighborhood and its residents. This is a way the neighborhoods can become self-sustaining.

Carl points out we need to make our voice heard to change the systems that were put in place by the original 1945 plan. “It is important for the message to get out to the public,” Carl stated. “Share this story. Once you share this story the important players will rise to the top. To be a part of history in the making is a very attractive and engaging opportunity we can benefit from.

Carl also encourages everyone to donate to MY REGION WINS!. Funds are needed to obtain these vacant and blighted properties, work with the neighborhoods and their residents to develop opportunities and amenities that used to be present on the west side of District 5 and generate revenue, building sustainable neighborhoods and given stipends to residents.

MY REGION WINS! is more than the name for Kansas City’s Creative 501c3 non-for-profit organization; it’s a rallying cry. Carl explains it means he is not going anywhere. He signed a covenant - not a contract. The blighted and vacant properties in neighborhoods have been disinvested in for too long. It is time they are seen as resources that can be beneficial to the neighborhoods and the City of Kansas City.

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