Spotlight on Sly James: 2024 J. Philip Kirk Jr. Award winner

Downtown Council Board of Directors Chair Dr. Kimberly Beatty presents the J. Philip Kirk Jr. Award to Sly James, former Mayor of the City of Kansas City (2011-2019), on April 12 at the Kay Barnes Grand Ballroom in the Kansas City Convention Center. (Photo by Mark McDonald.)

Among the many accomplishments and milestones celebrated by the Downtown Council at its popular Annual Luncheon each year, there is one moment that consistently elevates the event.

The J. Philip Kirk Jr. Award – a celebration of leadership and the power of vision, guidance, and commitment – was awarded at the luncheon on April 12 to Slyvester “Sly” James, 54th mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, as well as attorney, mediator, and author. As the saying goes, the audience went wild with appreciation.

Former Mayor Sly James accepts the 2024 J. Philp Kirk Jr. Award at the Downtown Council’s Annual Luncheon in April. (Photo by Mark McDonald.)

“Mayor James was a one-man salesman for Kansas City. And, I think the public responded to that,” said Troy Schulte, City Manager during Mayor James’ terms in office. “He was able to leverage a whole lot of latent good will and latent energy for this town. He was the guy who said ‘We’re going to do it!’”

James is the 21st Downtown Kansas City champion to receive the Kirk Award since 2002. The list of previous winners began with Kirk – who played a pivotal role in Downtown’s remarkable renaissance – and includes former Mayor Kay Barnes in 2018. Click here to view a video salute to the latest Kirk Award winner.

“Everything we do, we do because someone else has laid the groundwork for us. I would be absolutely remiss not mentioning Mayor Kay Barnes who really did start to turn this city around Downtown,” James told the enthusiastic audience. “And, it wasn’t easy for her. There are still people who are critics. But at the end of the day, we all know… that but for her work we would not be where we are today.”

Dr. Kimberly Beatty, DTC board chair and Metropolitan Community College chancellor, presented Mayor James with the Kirk Award on center stage at the Kay Barnes Grand Ballroom in the Kansas City Convention Center.  

“I always appreciated that he had no fear,” said Joni Wickham, former Chief of Staff for Mayor James and co-founder of Wickham James Strategies & Solutions public affairs consulting firm. “If it was for the good of Kansas City, he would quite literally run through a brick wall. And, he did.”

Mayor James is credited with playing critical roles in advancing and accomplishing the 800-room convention hotel; the new KCI Airport; overwhelming passage of an $800 million infrastructure package; creating the first “smart City” initiative in North America; collaborating between Major League Baseball and the Kansas City Royals to build the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy; establishment, construction, and expansion of the modern, transformative KC Streetcar line; and closing the gap between the city’s third grade reading proficiency and the state average by a third among his many triumphs and advancements

He was very interested in the opinions of other people, and trying to think about the best way to move the city forward,” said Tom Gerend, executive director of the Kansas City Streetcar Authority. “He was here to lead. He was here to bring the swagger back. Downtown needed it at the time. And he was the perfect guy for the job.

“He believed in Kansas City … he believed in a vibrant future, and that we could do big things. And we needed to prove that to the rest of the country.”

Former Mayor Sly James pauses to reflect on the influence of J. Philip Kirk Jr., during his acceptance remarks at the Downtown Council’s Annual Luncheon in April. (Photo by Mark McDonald.)

James accepted the Kirk Award by challenging the audience… and with a personal reflection.

“I love Kansas City. I think we still have more in us to give. I encourage you not to think that we are finished… we are not. We have to continue to do what we have done in order to stay abreast of everything that’s out there. And, there is one last thing that we need to do as a city that will truly build a foundation for us going forward. We have to absolutely make sure every child in this city has access to high quality pre-K and that they are safe during the day in child care. Those are musts.”

The 2024 Kirk Award winner paused a moment to collect his thoughts before delivering his parting words.

“Phil Kirk was a marvelous man,” James said. “To be honored with an award that bears his name is indeed the top honor that I could ever expect.”