By Jim McKay | Staff Writer
Call centers are giving Kansas City a way to put more people to work and giving them a high-tech foundation to build on.
The call center at the 18th and Vine district in Kansas City, Mo., offers a glimpse into the citys past. Its museums are time capsules commemorating the historical development of jazz and the stars of baseballs old Negro Leagues. Amid these recollections of the past is a story for the future. A Sprint call center has helped lighten the
welfare load and changed perceptions, offering evidence that it is possible to assemble a successful IT workforce in the inner city.
To revitalize an area plunged into the depths of depression, the city poured $24 million into the area, renovating the historic Lincoln Building, erecting the 500-seat Gem Theatre and, with its museums, paying tribute to famous Kansas jazz musicians and baseball players.
Despite those efforts, the area was still mired in social decay and joblessness, with an unemployment rate hovering between 14 and 16 percent. At the same time, telecom giant Sprint was experiencing a shortage of entry-level customer-service workers in its call center in the suburb of Lenexa, some 16 miles from 18th and Vine.
Sprint looked to the inner city for help, and found a local government and its partners that were serious about doing whatever was necessary to bring a telecommunications business to the area and to put inner city residents to work.
Rejuvenating a Community
By 1997, more than 26 call centers were in operation in the Kansas City metropolitan area. The Lenexa center, which routes long-distance calls from around the world, opened in 1991. But because Lenexas unemployment rate had fallen to less than two percent, Sprint was losing employees. They needed to find a new pool of qualified, entry-level employees to help alleviate the costly employee turnover
The Lincoln Building, owned by the Black Economic Union (BEU), housed several small businesses but needed an anchor tenant. Enter the Kansas City Area Development Council (KCADC), which had dreams of bringing a telecommunications business to the area. What developed was a partnership between BEU, KCADC, the Full Employment Council (FEC), the
Kansas City Metropolitan Community Colleges Business Technology Center (BTC) and Sprint.
"There was activity in the area, including the Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Museum, some small businesses and an art gallery," said Lori Lockhart, Sprints director of Global Connection Services. "We felt there was an opportunity for us to be a part of that and help the community rejuvenate itself."
But there were concerns, such as the crime rate, that needed to be addressed. So the partnership submitted a proposal to Sprint to quell those concerns. The proposal outlined the "advantages of the inner city," which included some built-in benefits, such as proximity to a large residential area.
"Its been proven over the last three years that it is very safe," said Lockhart. "Our bus routes pick up agents right in front of the building if they dont have cars, and theres lots of business activity. The stereotypes are definitely reduced."
The proposal offered additional training, counseling and some unorthodox measures to ensure the success of a call center, like allowing split four-hour shifts so that employees could leave and take care of business at home between shifts.
"We involved a very solid, comprehensive approach to identification of potential employees and the screening of those employees through our partnership," said Sylvester Holmes, president of the BEU. "We put together a package that addressed the issues Sprint may have had and answered the most important and legitimate question from the private
sector, which is, Will it be good for business?"
The FEC, a non-profit organization that