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Banking on KC – Suzie Aron of Aron Real Estate

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Suzie Aron, the President of Aron Real Estate. Suzie has been integrally involved in developing Kansas City's urban core and specifically the Crossroads Arts District. Welcome, Suzie.

Suzie Aron:

Thank you. Nice to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, I'm very excited to hear your perspective because you have been involved with the Crossroads redevelopment since the very, very early days. In fact, I have heard you referred to before as the Mayor of the Crossroads.

Suzie Aron:

Well, you never know about something like that. It really takes a village, as somebody much cleverer than I said. But I've been around a long time so I probably have a key to most of the buildings in the neighborhood. So, I probably know a lot of people.

Kelly Scanlon:

Take us back. At one time the Crossroads District, it was basically a warehousing area. It also served the film industry. Some people may not know that, but Hollywood used to have some offices there and Disney, but then both of those were eventually abandoned and it really wasn't doing much. But then it was rediscovered by Kansas City's creative community, and as I said, you've been part of that transformation. So, talk with us about the early days of rediscovery and what led the artists to the district and how they started to rebuild a neighborhood culture there.

Suzie Aron:

Very often, artists find a community where the rents are affordable, and very often they create an excitement that later leads to the success of a neighborhood. But in the very beginning, it was a neighborhood that was about 80% empty. It was a neighborhood early developed by those who used Union Station and they would get on the train and get off the train with their product and reassemble it and put it back on the train again. You talked about the movie district. We do have number of all brick buildings that really appeal to the screening rooms so they could take care of their film, which was so flammable. The different studios from Hollywood would send their films to that Kansas City film district and people would come in from all the little towns all over the country and screen the movies. And they would decide which movies they wanted to buy and show at their theaters at home and get back on the train and leave again.

Suzie Aron:

So, we had a number of products that were in our neighborhood at the time when so much of our business happened around the train. A lot of grain, there were a lot of breweries, and a lot of automobile showrooms was early days for Crossroads. And then it went quiet as a lot of our cities did. And when the artists and people who were interested in affordable rents got to the neighborhood, that was probably in the 80s and started getting redeveloped in the 90s.

Kelly Scanlon:

That success was a double edged sword. You talked about how the area attracted them because it was affordable. So, talk with us about the redevelopment that started taking place that started attracting some of these other businesses there. And although that was a good thing, some of the original people who made it a place to be, were being forced out, essentially.

Suzie Aron:

You know what, there was a transitional time when the artists and galleries developed. Actually, it was interesting that you asked that question because First Friday, which many people know in our community as that unsliced to be the first of every month where all the galleries are open and lots of people come and have a street party and buy product, we also have been very fortunate to attract terrific restaurants, chefs. So, we've had a lot of creative people in our neighborhood and that attracted a certain clientele and that wanted to be a part of the energy of the developing community. And so, we all got together in different ways as entrepreneurs to do practical problem solving, just like any real estate development would. How do you park your cars? Where do you park your cars? What are the hours that you're allowed to leave your cars on the street? How do we deal with trash? How do we deal with all kinds of issues that people all over the community that own properties have to answer?

Suzie Aron:

How these collaborations happen, you just find your way by getting a group together and talking to your neighbors. And when you find similar problems to be celebrated, you do one thing. When you find problems that need to be solved, you do another. So, one of the things that happened as a number of artists and galleries developed in our neighborhood and not many of them were very successful in the beginning because they were just learning how to do it. And so, the group got together and decided that they would share mailing lists. And because no one could really afford the postage, we would all put all of our invitations in one envelope and send it to a mass mailing that we all agreed to. And believe it or not, that became First Friday.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, from a mass mailing, we get the First Friday we're all so familiar with.

Suzie Aron:

Yeah. And so, in the beginning, you would go to a gallery and maybe you would walk outside and you'd see a 100 people that you knew, and we'd go to each other's shows and support each other. As that grew to 20,000 people, we had a whole nother set of dynamics to deal with. So, the group continued to get together to make decisions about things like security, going to the bathroom, cleaning up the trash. I mean, as I say, all of those normal, how do you run a neighborhood issues, get solved by community communication. So, a development of neighbors got together and prioritized what we thought we needed to be dealing with and formed a neighborhood association called the Crossroads Community Association and developed a non-profit board. And we've just had a fabulous group of property owners and tenants that have served as community volunteers.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yes. And so, from what started as organic growth has now progressed to a more coordinated effort under this organization. And I know that you have actually, in order to help some of the artists and to help others who want to come in and locate there, you personally even have helped to develop or been involved with some various economic development tools. Tell us about some of those.

Suzie Aron:

Well, I think as a real estate broker, I've been involved with lots of different kinds of developments at all levels of size. And some of the incentives that we got, it was decided by our group that it was really important for us to keep our creative class. As we got more successful, we needed to find a way to stabilize our wins so that artists could stay and creative people could stay in the neighborhood. And we could have this balance, which is so necessary for producers and collectors and users of the product. And so, I went to Kay Barnes and asked her if she would consider helping us put together a PIEA, which is plan industrial improvement district, which was tax incentive that was being given to other developers.

Suzie Aron:

And so, after a couple of years, it really took four years to define what this was, since we were inventing it ourselves. We agreed that if a property owner would put 50% of his building and focus on creatives, that we would freeze their taxes. So, the landlord owner would still be paying pilots that they would be able to guarantee that the rents wouldn't have to go up all the time as the tax bill increased with our success. So, that was a program that we developed. We've had it for over 10 years now. We've actually had as many as 40 property owners that signed on to do that. And I think that's the main way in which we've been able to create a balance of tenants in our neighborhood.

Suzie Aron:

We still have about 200 artists working as tenants in our neighborhood, and we also have about maybe 250 artists working for those artists. So, as more and more artists are working behind computers, instead of easels, you find that the tech world and the art world and the creative lab has really expanded its identity in lots of different ways. But we've been able to stabilize our grants so that they can stay as the attorneys and the bankers and the residents have expanded in our neighborhood.

Kelly Scanlon:

It has been quite successful, as you say, and the First Fridays has just exploded. You mentioned that there might've been several hundred people in the beginning, and now there are tens of thousands, 20,000 I think is what I heard you say. Is that something that is sustainable?

Suzie Aron:

What has happened and did happen in our community was that it became a big street party. For some people it was perfect, they were able to come down. We had as many at one time as 54 food trucks, and that's a huge amount of entertaining to not only host, but try to keep safe. And as I say, deal with the trash and deal with all kinds of complex things that come with managing a party for 20,000 people on a monthly basis. We have 150 neighbors come out to a meeting to try to decide, did we really want to keep this big street party going or was it really developing to something that wasn't maybe exactly as we wanted it to be?

Suzie Aron:

Many, many people asked if we would return it art focused and not have so much of a street party, and that really expanded. Our neighborhood expands from Troost on the East to I35 on the West, Truman Road on the North, and then it goes to the railroad tracks on the South. So, we have about 800 properties. It's quite a large neighborhood. And even if we spread out and even if we managed to have a bunch of people want to come and be with us, I think the neighborhood really decided just right before COVID hit, that we really wanted to re-examine the energy, the idea, and what we wanted that First Friday, each week.

Kelly Scanlon:

You're a real estate developer and you have been involved in some successful projects yourself. You've won the Capstone Awards for several and just been recognized for other. So, tell us about some of your more prominent projects that are located in the area.

Suzie Aron:

I think the best thing about our community has been the people that have joined us. And as a person who's been involved with the arts all of my life, I was really very fortunate to represent a number of those artists that first came to the neighborhood. And so, I bought a number of buildings with my family, with the partners, and we have been involved for over maybe 25 years with owning properties. And most of our tenants have been with us for many, many, many, many years. And so, because I was lucky enough to be able to be very early in purchasing our buildings, we've been able to keep affordable rents. So, I've been involved with many, many of the creative tenants that have been in the neighborhood.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is next for the Crossroads? Where do you see it going?

Suzie Aron:

The Crossroads, one thing that's quite interesting in our immunity, if you come to our neighborhood, sometime during that time in which we developed, many tenants ended up owning their own buildings. And so, if you come to the Crossroads, you usually stay. We have one terrific business that's actually talk about the mayor of the Crossroads. This girl has had four separate locations. She runs an organization of women in professional sports, and she has been on the same block in four different locations for over 15 years. So, if you come to neighborhood, you probably are going to say in our neighborhoods. Sometimes you're upsizing, sometimes you're downsizing, sometimes you're a tenant, sometimes you're an owner, sometimes you end up an investor. So, we really have a pretty and special group of people.

Suzie Aron:

One thing I'm finding really interesting now after COVID because it got so quiet, and as you know, so many of our restaurants were vulnerable, and so many of our hospitality really were hurt, how we come back and I believe we will come back and are coming back, leasing has really picked up. And new people, new strong entrepreneurs, some of them in traditional businesses like beauty shop and advertising, they all remember how much fun it was. And we have really good floor plates sizes. Our buildings are around 5,000 square feet or on floor plates, so we can handle small business.

Suzie Aron:

And I think we really care about small business. So, I see all of these new people who are inventing themselves and many people who have been working from home, all of a sudden, starting to come back again and restaurants are filling up. And so, I'm very positive about how our neighborhood will stabilize again. Building sales never halted. People still want to buy buildings in our neighborhood. And I think that's going to continue and has always been successful.

Kelly Scanlon:

A few minutes ago, you mentioned the boundaries of the Crossroads, you gave the street locations that surrounded, but some of the most recent growth has been in the East Crossroads. Talk to us about how that's changed the neighborhood.

Suzie Aron:

We had one terrific investor, Matt Aben, and at one time he jumped into the neighborhood and bought about 12 buildings. So, we had a really fast redevelopment just because of his energy. And he was very open and interested in hospitality, so he put together several different kinds of hospitality, whether it was special events for weddings or leasing his properties to breweries and to restaurants. And so, the East, all of a sudden, just expanded into another area of hospitality. And I think the success of that has really been energizing other businesses to also come into that part of the neighborhood. So, it's all growing happily all the way over to 71.

Kelly Scanlon:

How has the Crossroads Arts District raised Kansas City's national profile and maybe serving as a model for other cities in areas that had gone quiet?

Suzie Aron:

One of the things that's so exciting is the business of the arts. And I really do believe we have many, many architects, we have many designers, we have a lot of, as I started saying, technical people who are designing on the computers. We have a lot of advertising agencies. We have the performing art center. We have the ballet is right across the bridge. We have the symphony. We have a lot of the business of the arts that have been very attractive to getting regional people to become interested in Kansas City. They might come down for a weekend.

Suzie Aron:

And we have five or six hotels now. I mean, that is a huge impact on when people come to Kansas City and choose to stay in our neighborhood and eat in our restaurants. And so, there's a lot of people coming in from out of town, not only to do business, but to stay in the neighborhood and eat in the neighborhood and be entertained in the neighborhood.

Kelly Scanlon:

So, it's definitely a tourist attraction in that regard. Suzie, what drew you to the Crossroads area back in the early days of the transformation? I mean, why did you decide to devote so much of your time and effort and resources into this particular area?

Suzie Aron:

I came from a garment company. Kansas City at one time was a huge town for making clothes and our family had a factory downtown. So, I grew up in these old historic buildings and were always fascinated by the architecture of the factory. So, it was very comfortable for me to appreciate these buildings. And so, when I decided to stay in Kansas City and become involved in the real estate business, I was attracted to this empty abandoned neighborhood. And I'll say for a mother whose children left Kansas City went to live in Boston and to San Francisco, both are two terrific cities that have great downtowns. And when I would visit my kids, were very, very much attracted to the urban communities and could see the success that had happened in other cities.

Suzie Aron:

And so, when I started to get involved, because I've always been an art collector with the arts community, I was very much interested and sympathetic. I came to the neighborhood actually as a first time photographer, and with a group called the Society of Contemporary Photography, we all volunteered and opened a gallery in the Crossroads in one of Jim Leavy's buildings. And I was involved as a volunteer and we ran a gallery. So, I was very much involved with the aesthetics of the building and the creative people.

Kelly Scanlon:

As involved as you have been from the beginning in the revitalization of the Crossroads, in shaping what it has become, and with your continued involvement, shaping what its headed towards, its future, what are you most proud of?

Suzie Aron:

Oh, gosh. What a wonderful question. I have to say, it's all about the people, all of the friends that I have made over the years. And there is a comradery of shared experience and support for good times and for hard times. And I just know that during this time of re-evaluation, that we'll all get back as we are and talk about what we want our neighborhood to be, as it continues to evolve. So, I think I'm most proud of the fact that we are still grass roots all these many years later, and it is a neighborhood and it continues to be a neighborhood. That's what I'm most proud of.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, and we are so very proud to have you as part of our Kansas City community. Thank you for all the work that you have done and just love your passion. Thanks so much for being a guest on our show today.

Suzie Aron:

Thank you, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thanks to Suzie Aron for joining us this week to share the story of the people and ideas behind the revitalization of the Crossroads Arts District. Throughout its history, the Crossroads area has been at the center of some of Kansas City's most interesting industries. It was once one of the biggest Hollywood film distribution centers in the world. A young Walt Disney had offices there. It was home to thriving warehouse operations. In some ways, it's no surprise that when the area sat largely vacant in the 1980s and 90s, it was our artists and creative community, people who make a living bringing to life what others can't see, who reimagined what the area could be.

Joe Close:

Working at a grassroots level, they breathe life back into the area and eventually forged strong collaborative relationships with real estate developers, economic development professionals, city leaders, and others who embraced their region. As a result of that thoughtful and organic development, today, the Crossroads Arts District is a vibrant neighborhood and business district, teaming with artists, design agencies, restaurants, boutiques, tech innovators, and entrepreneurs of all kinds, and it's growing. Each of Kansas City's neighborhoods have personalities that make them unique, but together they are key to a better, stronger Kansas City. When our neighborhoods are vibrant and their residents are engaged, the entire Kansas City community is strengthened. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City, Country Club Bank, member FDIC.