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Kansas City presses on with emerging 'smart city' corridor

Matt Hamblen | Sept. 30, 2015
While some ROI is expected from US$102 million streetcar project, it's unclear whether overall tech push will pay off.

Residential taxpayers and apartment and hotel developers have generally supported the effort as a way to promote new growth in the aging downtown. The city estimates that the streetcar project has directly generated $500 million in new downtown development, while another $1 billion in new development is under way nearby.

Cautious support

Eight residents said in interviews that they wish the line went further into other neighborhoods—something city planners have talked up in the face of taxpayer concerns about cost. But several other people were mystified about the value of the smart city project. Some noted that free outdoor Wi-Fi will be great, but isn't exactly a novelty and is already available in outdoor spaces of other cities.

"It sounds nice, but what's the ROI of all of it," asked a retired U.S. Air Force pharmacist while strolling with her dog near an outdoor concert on a recent Saturday evening. The woman was walking in the Crossroads Arts District near the streetcar line.

Elsewhere downtown, 24-year-old entrepreneur John Ruiz said he decided to keep his small private wireless security company in Kansas City rather than move to San Francisco because of the blossoming tech and developer community in neighborhoods near the streetcar line.

John Ruiz
John Ruiz, a tech entrepreneur, works at Think Big's collaborative office space -- just steps from Kansas City's coming streetcar line. He stayed in the city to take advantage of the focus on innovation for young developers. Credit: Matt Hamblen

"The value [of the streetcar and smart city project] is long-term. Initially, they help legitimize the downtown," Ruiz said. "The biggest difficulty is going to be moving the benefits outside this downtown bubble."

His company, EB Systems, provides wireless beacons to monitor the movements of private security and custodial workers as they make their rounds.

Finding ROI

Finding the ROI in any new technology project is always difficult, and can even kill a project before it gets off the ground.

However, Cisco obviously believes in the Kansas City project; it plans to invest $12 million with various partners over the next decade, along with a matching $3.7 million from the city. Sprint expects to spend $7 million for the free Wi-Fi along the streetcar line.

Cisco plans to build a unified network for Kansas City to use that can be monitored from a single location, automatically, to track traffic, parking, streetlights, streetcar movements and more. Nobody is willing to publicly put a dollar amount on the overall utility efficiencies that can be realized. However, Cisco partner Sensity Systems, an outdoor high-tech lighting provider, says the city can save $4 million a year with LED streetlights that can be dimmed automatically for precise ambient light conditions -- lights that are also cheaper to maintain.


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