Hearne: Merriam’s French Connection; Deceased Mayor Leaves Controversial Legacy

7669079d217be3e4536ada17f3a9250axJust win, baby…

We’ve all heard that one. And so it is that deceased former Merriam Mayor Irene French‘s autobiographical-like obituary boasts of having “accomplished” the Baron BMW car complex and the Merriam Town Center shopping mall.

All of which is largely true, but at what price?

The 86 year-old French enjoyed a 20 year reign as mayor of term limitless Merriam, but she went out with a bang…and not necessarily a good one.

“Turmoil recalled as dealership holds opening,” reads the headline in the Starannouncing Baron BMW’s completion in October of 2000.

“To some people in Merriam, the new Baron BMW dealership that sits impressively on a hillside off Shawnee Mission Parkway and Interstate 35 is an example of the fruits of the city’s redevelopment efforts. To others, it is a prominent reminder of what some residents have labeled an abuse of power by city hall.”
“That was French’s only fault in my eyes,” says hard-rocking, former Merriam councilman Dan Leap. “She used condemnation for two different deals. She used it for Baron BMW – which was totally wrong. If she’d just kept government out of private business, it would have all worked out.”
Here’s how it went down: 
“When negotiations between Baron and (real estate owners William and Laverne Gross) reached an impasse, Baron asked the city to consider using eminent domain powers to acquire the property for redevelopment purposes,” the Star continued. “The city agreed and eventually received title to the land. The title subsequently was turned over to Baron, which paid Gross $1 million.

“The city’s action created a tide of outrage among some residents in the city. In the April 1999 election, voters turned out four veteran council members in favor of four political newcomers. The controversy over the Baron BMW property acquisition was seen as a major contributor to the council upheaval.”


Leap’s take:

“She didn’t run for reelection after her term was up after the Baron BMW fiasco,” he says. “Probably because she knew she would get beat. It was a big deal in Merriam and it was a serious blow to her reputation.”

FrenchIrene-obit-pic-150x200Ditto – to a lesser degree – for the shopping center. 
“She used condemnation for Merriam Town Center too,” Leap says. “I don’t remember if the people there wanted to move and got paid what they wanted or not, but she used condemnation and it wasn’t for something like a public road going through there or a public use. It was for the developer of the shopping center, the same fuckers who owned the land Ikea is building on. And they used public money to build the Merriam Village that Ikea just tore down.”
But who really remembers much about any of that now?
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8 Responses to Hearne: Merriam’s French Connection; Deceased Mayor Leaves Controversial Legacy

  1. the dude says:

    Ah yes, nothing quite like some good ol’ public domain abuse to build private money TIF financed developments. Just displacing a few ‘little people’, right?
    No harm no foul? 😉

  2. Truth Hurts says:

    Good history demands good revision…the area that was condemned and eventually turned into all the Merriam commercial properties was run down rental housing that was drawing in the poverty culture into Merriam and the SMSD. In addition, these houses were torn down just before the MASSIVE influx of illegal Mexican immigration hit NE JOCO and WYCO. For better or worse, these properties and this part of JOCO I-35 would look A LOT different if this housing would have stayed on the market.

    • Super Dave says:

      You are very correct in what you are saying. Irene French did a lot in pushing for the redevelopment of Merriam that has taken place and moving ahead today. Hearne like to interview people like Dan and Glazer since they never appear to be brighter than him hence he looks good. Seeking out a real person with the truth for this story would have ruined Hearne’s whole idea about the story. William and Laverne Gross played hard ball it appeared but was grinning all the way to the bank with that check for a piece of ground that wasn’t for just everybody.

    • Hearne says:

      Not so, Truth…

      The area Baron took over was the home to a pair of car dealerships that – while a bit long in the tooth – like Leap said, would most likely have been redeveloped by the landowner or whomever they sold it to.

      And as for what Super Dave alleges what negotiations may or may not have taken place, as the property owners they had every right to negotiate with potential buyers as they wished.

      As for my seeking out “the truth for this story,” you might want to read the many news accounts of the day as to how controversial the Baron condemnation was. Or at the very least note that the Star – not me and not Dan Leap – reported on the four Merriam council members who were voted out of office after supporting the Baron power play.

      The fact is, French engaged in good old boy, behind the scenes politics, picked who she wanted to win and then made it happen. Not exactly capitalism or government at its best.

  3. Truth Hurts says:

    Hearne… Bunker Hill was the lynch pin in getting that area redeveloped, from SM Parkway all the way North to I-35. Without that key property, Merriam would be Raytown and the SMSD wound be the Hickman Mills School District. Sometimes, the greater good for the NE JOCO middle class means building another Home Depot, and not allowing some greedy goofball to take any ball hit into his yard and keep it. And all just in time… Post 2007 and it all would have been DOA.

    • Hearne says:

      It’s easy to re-write history in the comments section when there’s no way to prove your point one way or the other.

      The fact is that that corner was a hot strategic property and one way or another somebody was going to pay whatever it took to buy it, take advantage of it and improve it.

      French merely helped Baron get a discount on it so their $10 million dealership complex would only cost them $1 million for the land. Government picking winners.

      You may think that sounds fair and at this stage of the game it’s but a fleeting memory, but history is history.

  4. Hearne says:

    Some may wonder why BMW guys wanted or even needed to get the real estate for Baron bought at a discount afforded by French and the four Merriam council members who got kicked to the curb in the election following the sweetheart deal?

    Because a handful of years earlier Baron’s predecessor the BMW Gallary (which included two owners of Baron) built their first spanking new dream dealership at 7727 Frontage Road just a hop, skip and a jump down I-35 to the south.

    It’s an Acura dealer now, because the BMW Gallary got over-extended and had to hand it over to Acura and move in to the crummy former home of Merriam Volkswagen which the current Baron replaced with French’s help.

    I wrote an item about the night the two dealerships traded places. The well-heeled Acura guys were thrilled by their new digs while the then-struggling BMW guys were embarrassed that they couldn’t afford to stay at their practically new, state of the art dealership and had to move into a rundown building.

    A handful of years later after Baron was formed and they were ready to take another run at the big time, they took advantage of French and Merriam to make sure they kept expenses down as much as possible by getting a deal on the real estate.

    Here’s the item I wrote in the Star in 1992:

    Trading places: The folks at the BMW Gallery and Precision Acura pulled off a high stakes version of the old switcheroo last week. The two dealerships swapped locations.

    About 250 cars and a half million dollars in parts and pieces – plus mechanic’s tools – took part in the two-mile, rolling swap meet.

    And they pulled it off with virtually no problems. How? They traded furniture. About the only gaffe was that Precision wasn’t able to get its address changed on some of the advertising, resulting in BMW’s feasting on a few potential used car buyers.

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