Will ‘major artery’ to Kansas City, Kansas reopen? Businesses hope it does — and fast

Until customers can cross the closed Central Avenue Bridge over the Kansas River, the Kansas City, Kansas, bar Chicago’s remains “landlocked,” a co-owner said.

That “major artery” to the heart of KCK has been closed since early 2021 for fear of failure, cutting off businesses in the area from additional customers, other parts of the region and, in turn, tax revenue for Wyandotte County, business owners say.

“Since February 2021, I cannot count how many customers and members of the community have asked about the Central Avenue Bridge and when it will be reopened,” said Laura Summa, who owns Chicago’s with her husband at Central Avenue and North 6th Street.

Summa and other business owners last week urged the Board of Commissioners of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, to find a way to reopen the bridge, which connects Central Avenue to James Street and the West Bottoms. Some business owners said they have lost income because of the bridge closure.

After hearing from business owners, the county’s governing body voted unanimously to work to reopen the Central Avenue Bridge with “necessary emergency” repairs and to seek funding to redesign and rebuild a new, multi-use bridge. But it’s just a first step before the bridge can be reopened.

Tom Burroughs, At-Large District 2 commissioner, said prior language used in a community-wide master plan “tied the hands” of state and federal lawmakers from seeking funding for the project. With the vote Thursday, they can better advocate for funding for the bridge, which Burroughs hopes encourages economic development in eastern KCK.

Melissa Bynum, At-Large District 1 commissioner, said she supports finding ways to rebuild the bridge, but noted that it can’t be done overnight. The bridge is currently failing, she said.

“I just want to be straightforward with the community: This is not going to be a quick or simple process,” she said.

Commissioner Andrew Davis, District 8, noted the project would be “very expensive,” estimating it to be millions of dollars.

There are 270 bridges in KCK, 17 of which are considered major bridges. The Central Avenue Bridge is one of them. As elected officials came up with their strategic planning for infrastructure, Bynum said, they realized the UG needs to increase its annual spending on bridges from $500,000 to $14 million — something she said feels “almost impossible.”

“This gives you a notion of the scope of the infrastructure needs of our community,” Bynum said.

With the Central Avenue Bridge and another recent ramp closure, businesses in the area at times have lost between 10% and 17% of business, amounting to $50,000 a month for some larger businesses, said Edgar Galicia, executive director of the Central Avenue Betterment Association. For small businesses, a survey showed, those figures were higher: 23% and 35%.

Mike Pearce, who with his brother owns Slap’s BBQ on Central Avenue, said they want to be connected to downtown Kansas City, Missouri, which attracts many customers. He told the commissioners that while the interstates are better traveled, just an additional 10 customers coming across the local bridge a day could amount to $130,000 in revenue a year.

“That’s just our business — how much is lost by not having that bridge open,” Pearce said, adding that’s “if only 10 come, and I’d venture to say that on a First Friday, we probably get 25, 35, 45 more people.”

It’s not just businesses: Resident Jim Schneweis said he feels isolated and described his neighborhood as a food and pharmacy desert. That means that, unlike businesses who need customers to come in, he has to leave to get necessary items.

“If we had better infrastructure on our bridges,” he said, “that would help alleviate some of that problem.”

Neighbors also framed it to Schneweis as a safety issue: Some people traveling on interstates 670 and 70 are wild drivers.

The Kansas Department of Transportation owns a portion of the bridge and is working to reconstruct it. But the eastern part that connects to James Street is owned by the UG.

State Rep. Pam Curtis, a Democrat whose district includes the bridge, said multiple bridge closures around Wyandotte County have highlighted “just how vulnerable and important” KCK’s infrastructure is. KCK has more bridges than other communities of its size.

“The vast majority of residents and businesses that I have heard from support a plan that repairs and replaces the Central Avenue Bridge,” said Curtis, who is leading an effort to save the bridge.

At the UG meeting, Curtis read a letter from Bill Burns, the incoming District 2 commissioner who says repairing the bridge will be a priority. Burns called the bridge a “catalyst for development” and said suggestions to tear it down were “nonsense.”

“The bridge for many years is part of the rich history of Wyandotte County,” he said.