Wednesday Afternoon With Gene Gamber

Local advocate still active in community

(Story originally published in the Lee’s Summit Journal in March 2012)

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Sometimes those with heavy financial acumen are not synonymous with also having a sharp community eye on community involvement.

Clearly, Gene Gamber breaks that mold.

The namesake of the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation’s Gamber Center, 4 S.E. Independence Ave., is still as savvy on local politics, policies and issues as he was decades ago.

In fact, Gamber still remains busy and active on local boards, including chairing the Civic Roundtable, and the more informal coffee group that meets daily at the Whistle Stop in downtown Lee’s Summit.

No matter the crowd or topic, Gamber, rightfully so, has the ear of those around him while also taking the time to listen on what is going on in the community he has called home for more than two decades.

Still humble about the name of the building, Gamber said he feels fortunate to have been so active with the facilitation and funding mechanisms that helped make the senior center possible.

“I did pick up the gauntlet for the senior center,” Gamber said during an interview after another one of committee meetings, this time the Chamber of Commerce’s Government Relations committee. “Tom Lovell (Parks and Recreation director) suggested we join forces, so, we made that happen.”

Then-Mayor Karen Messerli appointed both an advisory and a board of directors to manage the senior center, which in the 1990s was located at Arnold Hall. Gamber served on both as president of the advisory board and vice president of the board of directors.

Putting his financial savvy that spanned 30 years at General Motors to work for Lee’s Summit, Gamber got involved in many of the operations at the center in Arnold Hall, including helping the non-profit board with grants and other revenue generating streams.

In 2005, he became treasurer of the campaign to fund a new senior center – an initiative he got personally involved with.

“The Parks and Rec sales tax was sunsetting, and the talk was that we could wrap up the senior center into a new bond issue,” Gamber said, adding that the understanding would be the new center would fall under the Parks and Recreation regime.

Gamber was pivotal in talking to members of the Lee’s Summit City Council about the land at Second and Independence – the future site of the senior building that bears his name – and for helping to secure the balance of funds needed for construction.

Never, though, did Gamber let it cross his mind that his name would land on the center.

“We had several meetings about how we were going to name the facility,” Gamber recalled. “Then all of the sudden, there was no conversation about it. I didn’t even know until the ground breaking.”

Seeing through a project of that magnitude earned Gamber several accolades and much community esteem. In 2005, he was named the Citizen of the Year for the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. It was less than 16 years after he moved to Lee’s Summit.

“In 1989, my wife (Sylvia) passed away and I was living alone (in Raytown),” Gamber said. “Some close friends of mine, including Stan Atkinson, encouraged me to move out here and together we decided to build a two-unit town home in Lee’s Summit.”

Gamber worked in the back of Atkinson’s office for a while before opening Gamber’s Fifth Avenue Antiques.

The business was open a little over a year, but Gamber says he has no regrets.

“I had high end antique furniture, it just didn’t go over in Lee’s Summit,” said Gamber, a wry smile creeping across his face.

Still, Gamber had made his mark in various other business circles and been giving financial advice and know-how to political action committees around Lee’s Summit working as a spokesperson for HOA’s that were at the table to discuss the positives and challenges of the proposed shopping center that would be Summit Woods, at the behest of longtime friend Dave Gale.

Gamber would also be involved in the Citizens for Excellence in Lee’s Summit and the Friends of Lee’s Summit.

“I enjoyed those times, although I will never be treasurer of three different organizations again,” he said.

Gamber said his connection to Lee’s Summit took time, but that once he made himself available, there was no limit on opportunities.

“When I first moved to Lee’s Summit, it wasn’t that easy (to get involved),” he said. “But once I started getting involved, it honestly wasn’t that difficult. Once you express an interest, it’s kind of hard not to be involved.”

Through his work at the senior center, with the city and among the neighborhood and political groups, Gamber has had a weighty impact on Lee’s Summit, something he says anyone can accomplish.

“It’s wide open for the opportunity here,” he said. “In Lee’s Summit, you can be whatever you want to be. It’s a place you can truly contribute.”

And while Gamber sets aside any talk of political office, he knows he hasn’t seen his last bit of action.

“The next thing will be the next thing. I will know it when it comes along,” he said.

In the meantime, his legacy of service to seniors and governance of his community will stand as a long-term legacy in Lee’s Summit.

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Downtown LS has changed, for the better

(Column originally ran Feb. 27, 2009)

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Things have certainly changed a lot in downtown Lee’s Summit since I was last here. OK, not completely. And please don’t mistake ‘change’ with any negative vibes.

Change is good. It’s healthy and it keeps us on our toes.

Lee’s Summit’s downtown was always a destinatio

n for my friends and I back when I lived in Independence. The live music was good, the food was unique and the atmosphere was always exceptional. To have all of these elements and not have to fight the crowds and traffic of Kansas City was truly a blessing for us.

And yes, I had to deal with a dose of change when I got back into town.

Chicken ‘n’ Blues and Strothers were favorite hangouts, but now we have Ciao! Bella and The Peanut. I’ve eaten at both in my short time here (on top of my Publisher duties I do consider myself an amateur food critic) and have been impressed with both, especially Ciao! Bella’s Black and Bleu salad – the only way a guy’s going to look tough eating a salad is when they throw a steak on top of it.

Music lovers have many places to stop as well. Third Street Pub and 3-2-1 Club have given way to Sharkeez and Braata – both fun and creative additions to our downtown core.

Clothes, jewelry, furniture, framing, trophies, gourmet food, art…the list goes on and on. It’s an impressive and inspired group of businesses we have down here.

At the quarterly meeting of the Lee’s Summit Main Street organization this week, I was checking the long list of 2009 events.

I thought I had a busy schedule.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade coming up in a few weeks is the kickoff to what promises to be an energetic and rousing time to be in downtown Lee’s Summit.

The Spring Open House, Bunny Hop and Downtown Days follow in March, April and into June with the start of the farmer’s market and the weekly free Friday night concerts a constant staple throughout the season.

Given the enormous growth of Lee’s Summit over the last decade, it’s refreshing to see this city maintain a thriving and exuberant downtown area.

And we must keep in mind that none of events are possible without the dedication of our downtown organizations and strong will of our downtown businesses.

If you haven’t been lately, this is a perfect time of the year to come back.

The Carpenters Union, RED and concerts

(Column originally ran May 1, 2009)

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Representatives from RED Development came by the Journal this week to discuss money.

That seems to be all people are talking about these days.

They were talking about the millions of dollars it is going to take to finish up the enormous project – Summit Fair – at U.S. 50 and Chipman Road.

Some call it a bailout. Others say the money is simply a safety net.

Either way, the lines in the sand have been drawn between those that see the $10 million-plus as a “loan” and those that see it as a means to finish a project that will be huge for Lee’s Summit.

Recently, a flier had been released calling the city council’s decision to underwrite the loans “Another Government Bailout…”

Those that made the flier – Dave Wilson of the Carpenter’s Union has admitted he is the ringleader – said RED is making him and others red with anger.

Equally, RED Development is seeing red about Wilson’s flyer and has been on a mission to set the record straight about it.

Here are the undisputed facts:

JC Penney and Macy’s are booked and going to open this fall. Other stores have verbally committed, but nothing is on paper yet as far as a date to move in. However, RED is positive other stores will be open in 2009 beside JC Penney and Macy’s.

RED is also unable to confirm a restaurant right now, although there are several restaurant pads available. Again, though, they tell us this will happen in time.

Another undisputed fact is this: the economy is making it tough for retail stores to pull the trigger on opening. Whereas a few years ago stores were asking ‘When can I open?’ they are now asking ‘How long can I wait?’

Another area of confusion has been whether or not the downtown concert series will indeed stay downtown this summer.

The official word is in: the concerts are downtown for 2009.

“All three of the concerts are going to be downtown on Green Street,” Joe Snook, assistant administrator of Parks and Recreation, told me yesterday.

Snook did confirm the Parks and Recreation department did have some discussions with RED about having the Blues and Jazz Fest at Summit Fair.

But those conversations were borne out of necessity, he said.

“We lost a major sponsor last year and we’ve been searching for sponsors for quite some time,” Snook said. “We made a long list of possible sponsors and RED was one of them. It came back there was some interest on their part to do some at Summit Fair.”

The fear was that RED would move one of the shows away from downtown. As much as some would not like that, when a company is writing that kind of a check, they can pretty much move it wherever they want.

Parks and Recreation has since secured a partial sponsor for one of the concerts.

And while the concert series is safely downtown this year, the battle to keep it there might become a yearly occurrence.

Sponsors are often hard to come by and the Parks and Recreation department said it has to think about the entirety of Lee’s Summit when it plans these events.

“We have an amphitheater out at Legacy Park, so, to be honest, that could be a future venue,” Snook said. “It’s not absolute these will always be in downtown. We need to be beneficial to the community.”

For now, though, Green Street is still the place to be as Bayou Bash rolls out June 19, followed by the Jamaican Jam on July 17 and the Blues and Jazz Fest Aug. 7.