Wednesday Afternoon With Gene Gamber

Local advocate still active in community

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


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.


The Carpenters Union, RED and concerts

(Column originally ran May 1, 2009)


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.

Oh, soccer…I will learn to love you


I have had a real love-hate relationship with soccer going all the way back to my youth.

I never really played the sport. Not that I can remember at least. In our old neighborhood, we grew up with a baseball glove and ball, a basketball and a bike. If there was a soccer ball around, we didn’t do much with it.

Sometime in junior high, The Kansas City Comets appeared on my radar. I don’t remember the first game I went to at Kemper Arena, but I remember I had to go back. Maybe it was the light show before the game. Or the pure energy of a few thousand people (never any more than that as I recall) shrieking as the players were announced and ran onto the indoor soccer field.

They made entrances as if they were the most popular and famous athletes on the planet. And, at the time, they were to us. They had names like Jan Goossens, Alan Mayer, Ed Gettemeier and Gino Schiraldi.

The days of the Comets faded and I turned to the world of sports writing. Some time in 1996, I covered my first high school soccer game. Not long after, I covered my first high school girls’ soccer game, an epic 0-0 tie that went four overtimes and had no end in sight.

I think that’s when I started mildly mocking the sport. Although I did, and still do, openly acknowledge that the soccer players are often some of the best athletes in the schools.

So, I knew the day was coming when Addy would want to hit the soccer field. She started asking for a soccer ball last fall and, once the purple wonder was purchased and brought home, she started asking to take it outside and “play” a game against me.

When it came time for a soccer “team” then, Addy was ready. Well, sort of.

First, she requested she play on an “all girls” team.

“Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen, girlie,” I told her. Of course, I am not all that disappointed that Addy wants to steer clear of the boys right now. But, at her age, the boys and girls play on the same team, I explained.

That earned me an eye roll. I’m used to it now.

Addy’s mom and I decided the Itty Bitty Soccer program through the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation would be the best way to go to start our kiddo off on the right foot.

Of course, I had to wrap my head around my kiddo playing soccer. Yes, I realize millions of kids play it. Yes, I get that she’s not going to be mired in some four-hour-long tie game (God I hope).

At this age, soccer is more about the fundamentals of the game – passing, dribbling, teamwork and learning that the game isn’t 45 minutes of constant shooting the ball into the goal. Sometimes you have to, you know, be the goalie. Addy had a hard time with that.

The great part of Itty Bitty Soccer is that the parents are right there the whole time. And I mean right there. On the field.

Each parent is out there dribbling, passing, shooting and instructing with a slew of kiddos knocking a much smaller version of a soccer ball around.

And that’s where I renewed my appreciation for the sport. Right there, on the field with Addy. Observing the very beginnings of her learning to kick and interact and play the game.

I still haven’t been a Sporting Kansas City game, though. So, if you want to throw some tickets my way to convince me, please do.

Otherwise, I will be out at Miller J. Field on Saturday mornings watching and “coaching” my daughter and the other kids. For that brief moment in time, they are the stars of the show.

Birthday madness


Perhaps the most amusing part of throwing outlandish birthdays for our children is that we openly complain about the majesty of it all to any adults within earshot throughout the course of the event.

“Can you believe we do this?” we will ask one another. “Back in our day…”

Indeed, back in our day…

Birthdays are, of course, awesome as kids, no matter how titanic or low-key the party.

Cake. Gifts. Friends. Games. I mean, come on, it’s built in fun.

My most memorable birthday as a child was the surprise I had when my mom drove me to one of the greatest places, at the time, a kid could get lucky enough to enjoy – Showbiz Pizza Place. Inside were a dozen of my best friends, my siblings and family. Oh, and wall-to-wall video games (this was the 80s so it was nonstop Mrs. Pac-Man, Moon Patrol and Donkey Kong for me), pizza and those creepy bears and other assorted animals that played in a band behind the curtain.

As an adult, now, we seemingly look for the most outrageous ways to say “happy birthday” to our children. And maybe outrageous isn’t the correct word. Certainly, though, we can agree that our parents and grandparents are most likely snickering at the massive events we are throwing today.

Addy loves a good birthday party. And a good wedding. She’s like her dad in that regard.

In the last few weeks, she’s been fortunate enough to be invited to a “princess party” for a friend’s daughter and a 1-year old extravaganza out at Legacy Park in Lee’s Summit.

The princess party, if I can look at that through the eyes of the 4-, 5-, 6-year olds, had to have been just spectacular to them. The fact that you can “rent” princesses is something that I chalked up to “things John didn’t know.” But these two ladies had captivated the room the entire time, telling stories, doing activities and giving the little girls makeovers.

Since the 1-year old wasn’t quite ready for that, the party at the park was a little more subdued, if not outright fun, still. These parents opted to entertain the adults as well as the kids, offering food and drinks and the built-in bonus of having right there in a park.

When Addy turned 2, we hit up the birthday party wonderland, Paradise Park, for that occasion.

At 3, it was a bouncy castle in my backyard and catered food from Hy-Vee East in Lee’s Summit.

Just around the corner now is 4. I am sure Addy’s mom has some fun plans up her sleeve. And it will probably involve ponies.

I am certainly not bemoaning the new world of birthdays and kiddos. I am sure this isn’t a fad that just started a few years ago. It’s just all over my radar now with a child of my own.

I told Addy recently that one of her birthdays was just going to be cake and games at the house.

She asked, “Can my friends come?”

A gentle reminder about what really matters most to them.