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What Kansas City Can Learn From Costco

Cities are all about finding common ground among disparate groups and learning how to live together. That’s the message every Kansas Citian needs to hear from its elected leaders, bureaucrats and pundits. To be good citizens, we’re obligated to acknowledge and uphold the facts that we live in a city, that other people share our public spaces, and that these other people deserve the same respect we demand for ourselves, 

Our streets are shared property. The job of our elected political leadership is to make the average citizen feel like someone is on this specific case and on their side. This is, after all, how cities rise or fall. Kansas City is a city in an advanced state of decline because Kansas Citians share space with people who don’t respect themselves, don’t respect others, and don’t respect and maintain our shared property.  

Respect Yourself Respect Others

At the entrance of more and more public establishments, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of seeing dress code and service rules posted which state, “We will not serve you if you reek of marijuana”  

Traipsing about in common spaces and stinking these up like you’ve been rolling around in skunk roadkill is an entirely reasonable basis for excluding you from that public space. 

That unmistakable terpene stench – that has certain individuals with low self-respect and no respect whatsoever for others – is an entirely reasonable cause for ostracism and exclusion from public places. 

Public opinion and laws surrounding marijuana usage have changed dramatically in recent years: in 2017, Kansas City voters decided by a 75/25 percent margin to decriminalize possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana, imposing instead a $25 fine; and in 2018, Missourians voted to amend the State Constitution to permit the use of medical marijuana and its regulated growth.

Removing this violation from the City Code is one of many steps taken by Mayor Lucas and the City Council to create a more equitable community for all Kansas Citians. 

Earlier this year, Mayor Lucas launched a Marijuana Pardon Program for non-violent, low-level municipal marijuana and paraphernalia offenses. “We found that when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate even other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread.” — researchers in that NIH study.

I had the privilege of taking my wife to dinner the other day for her birthday. We went to an idyllic little restaurant of her choosing and proceeded to enjoy what may have been the single best dining out experience we’ve had in 27 years in Kansas City, inclusive of all the fine local restaurants that formerly thrived in the city’s retail and entertainment districts. Prominently displayed at the front of this particular restaurant was a sign detailing its dress code and its prohibition against loud marijuana stench. Perfect.

After dinner, we drove around the small incorporated township where the restaurant was located and observed beautiful tree-lined, clean orderly streets, garage doors unlocked and left open, residents out in their yards chatting and enjoying themselves – like a place from another time – and increasingly another world. There’s not very much like this left in the greater Kansas City metropolitan sprawl. Personally, if I lived in this township, I would do anything to preserve and defend the quality of life and the way of life being enjoyed within that neighborhood.

Disorder As Contagion

Imagine that the neighborhood you are living in is covered with graffiti, litter, and unreturned shopping carts. Would this reality cause you to litter more, trespass, or even steal? A thesis known as the broken windows theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behavior trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behavior, thus causing the behavior to spread. This may cause neighborhoods to decay and the quality of life of its inhabitants to deteriorate. For a city government, this may be a vital policy issue. But does disorder really spread in neighborhoods? So far there has not been strong empirical support, and it is not clear what constitutes disorder and what may make it spread. We generated hypotheses about the spread of disorder and tested them in six field experiments. We found that, when people observe that others violated a certain social norm or legitimate rule, they are more likely to violate other norms or rules, which causes disorder to spread

Kansas City Is In A Crisis Of Disorder

Citizenship is, after all, a social compact. We live together voluntarily.  When messages get sent time and again that our once agreed-upon rules no longer apply, or that they only apply to some, we know what happens. How many times do we have to see that law-breaking is contagious when laws are not enforced?

Many of the most common residential code violations in Kansas City are easily fixable with a little effort – the goal of code enforcement is not to levy fines and take people to court, but to obtain compliance and improve the quality of our neighborhoods. If you wish to report a code violation, contact 311.

Nuisance Code Violations (generally allows 10 days for correction; continued violation may result in abatement by the City at your expense)

  • Litter, trash, and rubbish (bagged or scattered)
  • Rank weeds and grass (over 10″ in height)
  • Fallen limbs or brush from greenery
  • Open/inappropriate storage of items such as interior furniture outdoors
  • Parking in unapproved location (such as on the grass) or without proper vehicle license
  • Graffiti (owner of the property is responsible for cleanup)
  • Hazardous tree or limbs

Look up code violations on CompassKC.

The City of Kansas City professes an active role in enforcing public standards with a bearing on quality of life in the civic commons. As I drive through the far-flung nooks and crannies of the city, I don’t observe very much active code enforcement in many neighborhoods. In fact, the city appears to be thoroughly overrun by life quality conditions that mirror that foul, skunky terpene stench. You get the overwhelming sense that our city’s management is not at all concerned about the quality of its citizens’ living experiences.

Speaking of Epidemic Violations and Dereliction of Duty

Any commissioned officer can stop an improperly tagged car with an expired paper license, just as they can for having a tail-light or license-plate light out, or other minor violation. However, this offense against tax law and other citizens has a very low priority. How many untagged drivers not paying their vehicle property tax – also don’t bother to have motorist liability insurance?

In Missouri, it’s illegal to have any sort of cover over your license plate, much less colored items that render the plate unreadable at more than a few feet. Yet, you see many drivers with these…. It’s such a low-priority item that the law is hardly ever enforced. In general, “your” license plates are actually the property of the state which issued them to you. They are issued to you under certain conditions to show that your motor vehicle conforms to the laws required to be driven on the roads in your state.

When you fail to conform to those laws, such as driving with suspended registration or not having the required insurance, you are no longer allowed to display the license plates and drive on the roadway. People without properly tagged vehicles are aware that their insurance “went out.” My assumption is that they received a renewal notice from their insurance company and didn’t pay the renewal fee, or some incident occurred which led to the cancellation of their insurance. Generally, insurance companies notify their clients when they are canceling policies, so if this happened, it probably wasn’t a surprise. With no proof of insurance, you can’t drive the car on the roadway. You have violated the “contract” you had with the state for the privilege of driving on the publicly-maintained roads. 

At the beginning of September, Gov. Parsons signed bipartisan legislation to address this problem statewide. However, the computer system which will enable car dealers to impose the sales tax at time of purchase will not be widely available until some time in 2025. In the meantime, it’s down to local law enforcement to enforce the rules of the road and ensure the safety of all drivers. So…, expect to see these ridiculous paper tags and folks with no business driving on our shared property (streets) for the foreseeable.  

When A City Lets Little Things Go Unaddressed – These Become Very Big Things

Broken windows grew out of an Atlantic magazine article written in 1982 by Harvard’s James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, a criminal justice professor at Rutgers University. At a time when policing was mostly reactive, they argued that small things matter in communities, and that when nothing is done about the small things, they grow to become big things.

We expressed this in a metaphor. Just as a broken window left unattended in a building is a sign that nobody cares, leading typically to more broken windows — more damage — so disorderly conditions and behaviors left unattended in a community are signs that nobody cares and lead to fear of crime, more serious crime, and urban decay. Good broken windows policing seeks partners to address it: social workers, city code enforcers, business improvement district staff, teachers, medical personnel, clergy, and others. Arrest of an offender is supposed to be a last resort — not the first.

Here’s what’s critical: Wilson and Kelling came to this conclusion by actually listening to those in poor, mostly minority, communities who were most proximate to the problem. Even in neighborhoods with high murder rates, residents would list comparatively minor transgressions like graffiti, teens drinking beer in public parks, and subway turnstile jumping as their top concerns. Why? Because they’d seen the degree to which, once those conditions ran rampant, gun violence was not far behind. 

What Can Kansas City Learn From Costco?

Major retail chains all over America are shutting down stores due to rampant theft. 

Target has decided to permanently shutter nine stores in high crime areas…

Target Corp. will shutter nine stores across four states on Oct. 21 because of theft and threats to safety, the company announced Tuesday, the latest — and loudest —example of a retailer exiting urban locations because of crime.Target said it made the “difficult decision” to close the stores — which include locations in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, Seattle, Portland and the San Francisco Bay area — after the Minneapolis-based company determined that theft-preventive measures had proved ineffective. The company said it had tried adding more security, including third-party guards, and using deterrents such as locking up merchandise. “We cannot continue operating these stores because theft and organized retail crime are threatening the safety of our team and guests and contributing to unsustainable business performance,” the company said.

But nine stores is just a drop in the bucket compared to what other retailers are doing.

For example, Rite Aid will close approximately 500 stores…

One of the largest U.S. drugstores chains Rite Aid is set to close around 500 stores nationwide as it negotiates a plan to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The Wall Street Journal reported that the firm, which is the third largest in the country, is looking to close branches and either sell or let creditors take over their remaining operations.

And CVS is in the process of closing a total of 900 stores by 2024…

Drugstore chain CVS is set to close hundreds of stores across the US as it undergoes a major reform to adjust to the needs of modern online shoppers.

The retail giant is coming to the end of a policy launched in 2021 which will see 300 stores closed each year – meaning 900 will have shuttered by 2024. In the announcement, which has hit headlines again recently amid rampant shoplifting at the store, bosses they said that they were undergoing a new ‘retail footprint strategy.’

Drugstores used to be all over the place in core urban areas. But now inner cities are littered with scores of boarded up establishments with “space available” signs on them. 

Costco has a simple formula for success: low prices and high-quality merchandise. Kansas City could learn a lot from Costco. In order to shop at Costco, you have to pay a membership fee and show proof of membership when you enter the store, when you checkout with your merchandise, and when you exit the store. 

In order to be Kansas Citians, we have to pay very high membership fees in the form of income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes. As I argued above about paper tags and municipal codes enforcement, you don’t have to show proof of membership. 

If Kansas Citians enjoyed Costco like customer services from the city – the average citizen would enjoy a greatly improved quality of life. Costco has a negligible problem with theft and shoplifting, because it is intelligently managed and exercises a zero tolerance policy for theft.

Costco has a zero-tolerance policy for stealing. If you get caught stealing, you will be permanently banned from the store and all other Costco locations worldwide. The company will also prosecute thieves, including its employees if found stealing merchandise. Such employees also have their services terminated immediately.

Costco’s loss prevention watches out for people who:

  1. Are in an aisle without any items in their cart or basket
  2. Have only a few things, and they don’t seem like they’re buying them for themselves
  3. Are inappropriately dressed. For example, wearing sunglasses at night
  4. Look nervous and jumpy when approached by employees, as if they are afraid of getting caught stealing

Stores block shoppers from entering without a membership because Costco is strict about its membership rules. Shoppers must scan their membership cards to complete purchases, and also display them to enter stores.

Employees stationed at the entrance of every store check the cards to ensure a paid member is with any group of shoppers entering. In short, Costco is better able than most retailers to control its losses to retail theft thanks to some key strategies that are core to its business.

In conclusion, there’s no magic or mystery involved with running a clean, safe city with a high quality of life for its citizens. It’s doing all the little things that elected officials and public servants are supposed to do, that they are paid to do, and doing these things consistently and effectively. Failure to uphold and uniformly enforce standards and norms brings about worsening chaos and decline.

It can be difficult to believe that the wild scenes that we are increasingly witnessing on the streets of Kansas City are actually real.  Other cities, however, are very far along the process of collapse and decline, witness for example Philadelphia. Last week widespread looting just erupted in Philadelphia.  Just when I think that conditions in the urban core have reached a low point, they seem to find a way to get even worse.  Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of this crisis.  As economic conditions continue to deteriorate, countless numbers of people will become even more desperate.  

Kansas City has reached an inflection point where it can either slow or potentially reverse this trend by doing governance fundamentals, or, it can allow its situation to continue to deteriorate until we reach the hellish looking extremes of a Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland, etc…., 

If you have questions or concerns about this article, I can be reached at

All my articles written for The Call can be accessed at

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Craig Nulan

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