Our Chance to Shine

photos by ANDREW FAILS

The Kansas City Auto Show took the stage at Bartle Hall in downtown Kansas City a little earlier than usual this year, because opening night was February 28. From the opening to the closing on Sunday, March 4, the brands that we represent were on display.

The Auto Show this year could boast a 15-percent increase in attendance from the previous year, and the Bartle Convention Hall housed over 435 cars on display to the automotive aficionado.

From the 16-car Mercedes-Benz display, through Porsche, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, and Mercedes-Benz Commercial Vans, the display, supported by Aristocrat Motors and Mercedes-Benz of Kansas City, was once again the star of the show.

“This is an annual event that showcases the retail automotive industry in the Kansas City market, and we are proud to be able to represent the very best of that market with our brands and our associates,” stated Marion Battaglia, president of the Soave Automotive Group. “This year the work our staff did at the show and the quality of our exhibits were actually recognized as ‘Best-in- Show’ by the people who counted the most, the show visitors.”

The Phoenix Family Difference

by KELSEY CIPOLLA  | photos courtesy of PHOENIX FAMILY

There are no cookie-cutter solutions at Phoenix Family. Instead, staff is on site working on thoughtful, personalized solutions for residents every day at the 35 properties the organization partners with in service of Phoenix Family’s mission: Empowering people living in low-income housing communities with the support they need to gain stability and achieve self-sufficiency.

“What that means for each of our individual residents can be very different, because one of the things we really pride ourselves on is that we are meeting people where they are, and that can be a high level of self-sufficiency, or it could be they were previously homeless or near homelessness,” says Executive Director Kimber Myers Givner.

Residents are facing steep challenges. In the Kansas City area, the wait for affordable multi-family housing is two to three years, and the average yearly income of the households Phoenix Family serves is $6,900, well below the federal poverty level for even an individual.

When people move into a residential community that Phoenix Family serves, they become eligible for the organization’s services, which are facilitated by an onsite coordinator. In multi-family communities, the heads of the household may need helping furnishing their new apartment, developing career skills to help them find a job or get a better job, learning about financial literacy, or finding a path to getting their GED. Phoenix Family also provides home education, which covers subjects like housekeeping and parenting.

For kids, Phoenix Family offers a free literacy-based after-school program called HIKE. Children who enter the program are tested in five core areas and receive a curriculum specific to their needs. An onsite reading specialist and volunteers work with kids on the areas that need improvement. The program also supplies participants with a meal.

In senior living communities, programming is focused on balanced living, which includes mental and physical health, providing residents with home help services and helping them navigate Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every site has blood pressure and blood sugar screenings once a month in case people aren’t able to get to their doctors, and fresh produce is delivered monthly, since many communities are in food deserts, and seniors may not have access to transportation.

If it sounds like Phoenix Family works on an almost staggering number of fronts to help residents, it’s because that’s what is required, Myers Givner says.

“I wish there was one thing that if everybody did it, he or she wouldn’t be in poverty, but it’s a multitude of factors,” Myers Givner explains.

Over her 20 years with the organization, Myers Givner says she’s met many residents who she could relate to, people who were successful and then lost everything.

“One of the things overall that I wish people knew was that nobody wants to live in poverty. It’s not something somebody really chooses,” she says. “At many times, choices might lead to that, but a person also may have not been equipped from the very beginning either from an education standpoint, from a professional standpoint, a literacy standpoint, to have those tools in his or her toolbox to be successful.”

And although we might not notice it, poverty exists in our own backyard, Myers Givner says, noting that Phoenix House has communities throughout the metro, including in Johnson County, as well as in Iowa.

In total, Phoenix Family serves 6,000 residents each day, despite having an annual budget of only $3 million and 57 employees across all program sites as well as in the home office. Because of the organization’s small staff size, volunteers play a vital role.

“Volunteers are so critical to the success of our programs, not only on the youth and the family side, but also the senior side,” Myers Givner says.

Volunteers are given the chance to help the organization in a way that fits with their personal interests and goals and work directly with residents so they get to see firsthand the difference their efforts make. Those personal connections between volunteers, staff, and residents are a big part of what makes Phoenix Family successful. Relationships often continue even after residents move out and move on, allowing Phoenix Family to see how they go on to thrive.

Myers Givner warmly recalls watching one of the kids she worked with early on in her career give a commencement speech at her graduation. Others check in, telling her about buying homes, graduating college, and their other adventures.

“Those successes, that we’re connected to people even after they’ve exited poverty, that is amazing,” she says. “A lot of programs are very temporary and very transitional. I think what’s unique about Phoenix is that we’re so invested in their lives on site, that even when they’ve left the property, we continue those relationships.”

A How-To Guide to Houseplants


The slooooow start to the season has us pondering this question: What should you add to your home to shoo away blah weather and make it feel fresh like spring year-round?

The antidote and the answer: Houseplants!

However, most of us aren’t born with a green thumb. Sure, we could help solve that problem by reading one of the many books on the topic, but to make it easy on ourselves, we called an expert.

Jaclyn Joslin, Kansas City interior designer and owner of Coveted Home, has us covered. She fills her Country Club Plaza store as well as her clients’ homes and her personal abode with smartly placed plants.

“A place without plants looks like no one lives or works there,” Joslin says. “Just a few plants can change the feeling of a space. They bring it to life.”


Yes, there is such thing as a trendy type of houseplant. No doubt in the past few years, you’ve seen succulents. Everywhere. Even the grocery store.

“They’ll always be popular because they’re pretty low-maintenance,” Joslin says. “But a lot of people think you don’t have to water them. And even though they require a lot less water than most plants, they still do need some water and attention.”

Joslin waters her succulents every week or two.

This year, sculptural plants are taking center stage. Think the ones with the large fan-like leaves, such as banana trees or palms.

The most popular of the popular, though, is the split-leaf philodendron (Monstera deliciosa) with its heartshaped leaves that can reach more than a foot long and wide. As the leaves mature, they develop holes in the center that eventually elongate all the way to the edge of the leaf, splitting the leaf into smaller sections.


If you’re looking for simple beyond succulents, Joslin suggests a pothos plant (Epipremnum aureum).

“They’re perfect for the office because if the leaves wilt if you forget about them for a while, they will pop right back up with a little water,” she says. “They’re a very popular plant, but beware: pothos is toxic if ingested by children or pets.”

Joslin also likes snake plants (Sansevieria). They don’t need much light or water – just water once every few weeks.

Another easy-peasy type is a rubber plant (Ficus elastica).

“It is versatile, and can do low or high light and is low maintenance in terms of watering,” she says.

The plant is so low-maintenance that Joslin waters only once every two weeks.

If you’re looking for a challenge…

Joslin often gets compliments from clients and customers on the showy fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) at Coveted Home.

The fiddle-leaf fig is one of those tall, sculptural numbers you see on magazine covers. Its leaves are shaped like violins — that’s how it earned its name. Its waxy, dark, dramatic foliage provides a striking contrast to the light walls of sun-filled rooms.

“They’re popular, but I don’t recommend them to everyone,” she says. “They need a lot of sun and they don’t like to be moved. A lot of people end up killing them because they do take a lot of responsibility.”

But, in their defense, they are stunning.


There’s typically a plant in nearly each room Joslin designs:

• In the kitchen on counters and open shelving.

• In the living room on a coffee table.

• In the office on a desk.

• In a bedroom next to a dresser.

“Plants make good endcaps for bigger pieces of furniture,” she says.

Joslin loves adding tall plants to a room for height variation.

“They get bigger than your floor lamps,” she says. “It’s a great way to take your eye up and across the room.”

In rooms without much floor space, Joslin hangs plants from the ceiling.

Plants also can provide the panacea to odd nooks and crannies.

“There was a spot next to a fireplace that looked so dead,” she says. “I put a plant there and it finished that corner.”

Besides making a room look better, plants help a room feel good, too. They’re natural air purifiers, removing pollutants by absorbing them through their leaves and roots.

So after the disruption of construction in Joslin’s home, her plants provided an aesthetically pleasing and serene source of comfort.

Sea Change


Can you smell the ocean? Feel the sand between your toes? Maybe hear the rhythm of the waves? Lina Dickinson and Melanie Bolin, founders of Mer-Sea, a line of products inspired by the sea can, even when they are home in Kansas City.

“We are travelers,” says Bolin. “Sometimes we are actually traveling and sometimes we are just tapping into that mindset.” Business partners for over five years, both women lived in California before moving to Kansas City for their husbands’ careers. Once they were settled and had their children in the groove of school and activities, they realized that they had similar dreams.

Bolin and Dickinson were interested in starting a business and both still felt a strong connection to the ocean, though they were happily planted in the Midwest. They agreed that the sea would be their muse. It may have seemed a curious plan for partners who were landlocked.

“One of our biggest advantages is that we are not by a beach,” says Bolin. “That gives us the gift of focus.”

The friends remember how elementary starting the business was. With backgrounds in product development, business, and sales, they had solid skills and experience. The creative essence of the company was built on instinct. They began developing scents, testing formulas, and making decisions about packaging. Then they began to market.

“It makes me laugh now,” says Bolin. “We didn’t even have an accountant then, and I was processing orders. I wasn’t even using a ledger. I just had this notebook and I’d write down the 24 orders and cross them off one by one as we filled them.”

Specialty retailers began to find Mer-Sea through their website and word of mouth. Soon there was an accountant and significantly more than 24 orders. The business was growing and Mer-Sea hired sales reps to handle their nationwide accounts. Then they had a big surprise.

“Anthropologie found us,” says Dickinson. “It wasn’t in our vision that we were ready for that.”

In fact, the upscale, cool-girl boutique with stores nationwide sought them out and wanted them to develop a collection exclusively for the brand.

“Anthropologie is known for building small businesses,” say Bolin. “We have ongoing storylines with them, and they have really raised the bar on creativity for us.”

As the business enters its sixth year, the partners talk of Mer-Sea like another child.

“We talk about it growing up,” says Bolin. “In the beginning, everything that happened was perfect, like a baby’s first smile.” “Then we hit the terrible twos,” she remembers, laughing.

“But even now, as the business is older, it’s still like parenting. We are learning to let go. We have to let other people do their thing.”

Each woman is grateful to have the collaboration.

“Our desks are side-by-side. We text each other in the evenings. It works so well to have two people involved in the decision-making process. One may hesitate and the other can see that we are ready,” says Bolin.

“The dialogue moves us forward,” Dickinson agrees.

“Sometimes when we’re busy and both on the phones, Lina will just push her chair back and say, ‘This is awesome!’ It’s a great energy,” says Bolin.

Dickinson admits that there are challenges.

“Balance is difficult. It takes so much time and energy. Whatever I have left goes to my family, so my poor friends get shortchanged. Sometimes I’m not sure if I have any friends left, “ she says, laughing.

She is, however, adapting.

“I didn’t know if there would ever be a time when I wasn’t involved with everything. But, as we have grown, I have been able to let amazing people around me take things off my plate.”

The partners – and the business – continue to move forward. As Mer-Sea grows, Bolin and Dickinson understand that expansion may come in different directions.

“Some of it people tell you – what they want to see – either verbally or through sales,” says Bolin.

While Mer-Sea has been successful in fragrance and home goods, the company is expanding the travel mindset to include soft goods like a broader line of travel wraps, new bags, and jewelry.

“We’re starting to have conversations about where that may take us,” says Dickinson.

Still, the devil is in the details. Bolin is responsible for product design and she’s focused – and excited – by small details that make the products stand out. It’s important to both women that they are constantly learning, doing interesting things, and engaged in the world around them. They are creating product for people who see the world in the same way.

“We are discovering new things, seeing what is possible that a short time ago wasn’t in our view,” says Bolin. “It’s a traveler’s mindset.” .

To find Mer-Sea products at retailers near you or to shop online, visit mersea.com.

Taking Root in Kansas City Soil

words by EMILY & STEWART LANE  | photos by ANNA PETROW

Warmth and comfort. Style and innovation. One might think these things couldn’t possibly overlap in one dining experience, yet Black Dirt has found a way to coalesce these disparate elements. From the team that brought us Justus Drugstore in Smithville, Missouri, Chef Jonathan Justus, a James Beard Award nominee, and Camille Eklof, have added to the food landscape in midtown with the opening of their second restaurant.

EL: They say the best things are grown in the black dirt of Missouri. Chef Justus is taking this notion to heart with his new restaurant located in the 51 Main building just south of the Plaza. Upon arriving, one can tell there are various pockets of space in which to dine, each offering a distinctive environment. We were led into a room of small tables, all housed under an incredible art piece they referred to as their “tree sculpture,” which is exactly as it sounds and more. Twisted and tangled roots interspersed with industrial lights set the stage for our evening.

SL: When Emily and I dined here for the first time, there were so many tantalizing items on the menu, and we wanted to try as many dishes as possible, so we opted to dine off the small-plates menu. But before we had our first bite, we had our first experience. Our charming and well-informed server, Tony, brought me an Erlenmeyer flask filled with a bourbon cocktail and cherrywood smoke. The stopper was removed releasing smoke and the cocktail gently into my glass. A quick “cheers,” as we enjoyed our drinks and snacked on the house-made “29-Hour Bread” with Shatto butter.

EL: The bar menu is impressive and filled with craft-cocktail creativity, just like Stewart described. There is also a well-curated wine list with plenty of wine-by-the-glass options. Naturally, there are Missouri wines featured. This local emphasis is prominent throughout the menu, and we loved seeing the black-garlic paste from Kansas City Canning Co. used in the small-plate shrimp special we enjoyed near the beginning of our meal.

SL: Chef Justus shows a mastery of techniques and flavor profiles with each dish. The pecan pear salad with compressed pear, spiced pecans, and apple cracklin’s was a clean and refreshing introduction to our meal. In contrast, the Missouri Caesar with brûléed romaine and catfish croutons was made even more special by the signature dressing: house-dried trout replacing the anchovies, creating a much lighter and more balanced flavor.

EL: None of these dishes are fussy or ostentatious. While beautiful on the plate, I never hesitated to dive right in, and mess things up a bit. Upon receiving the picturesque duck-egg fettuccine with crispy wild mushrooms, crème fraiche, arugula, and lemon zest, Tony instructed us to “…mix it all up! It’s much better that way.” Indeed, he was correct.

SL: Our server aptly guided us through the menu, as there were many dishes wecouldn’t resist trying. Duck confit fritters topped with beet-pickled cabbage and a butternut squash and malted-barley puree were crispy outside, rich and soft inside, with the acidity of the pickled cabbage to cut the fat, while the sauce added the final element to round out the dish. The octopus was not only texturally perfect, snappy outside but soft inside, but the high flavor notes of radish, red onion, greengoddess dressing, and perfectly crisp acidulated potatoes created an amazing flavor journey from start to finish.

EL: At the conclusion of our meal, just when we were convinced another bite wasn’t possible, Tony suggested the flourless chocolate torte with a banana and chocolate-chip ice cream and strawberry sauce. As a woman who is five-months pregnant, it didn’t take much persuading for me to indulge. And it was worth every bite. That’s a good way to summarize the whole experience at Black Dirt; every taste is purposeful, well executed, and more delicious than your last forkful. We’ll be back soon… perhaps for the entrée menu, perhaps for the bar menu. Either way, Black Dirt is perfect for any occasion, big or small.

Designing for Community Impact: The Story of Kansas City’s Nile Valley Aquaponics

A project architect in HOK’s Kansas City office, Tony McGrail is a lead designer for a proposed expansion of the Nile Valley Aquaponics urban farm. Nile Valley represents an innovative and sustainable model of producing fresh, healthy food while also rebuilding a community and mentoring at-risk youth. Here, McGrail discusses how community impact and architecture merge – and why he believes in Nile Valley’s grassroots mission to nourish our city.

First of all, what is aquaponics?

The simple definition is that it’s the symbiotic relationship of growing plant and animal life together. In the case of Nile Valley Aquaponics, the animals are fish, specifically tilapia, and the plants are fruits and vegetables. The fish generate waste that is used to fertilize and feed the plants. The plants filter water and return it to the fish. Nile Valley’s name comes from Egypt, where the Nile River has nourished life for millions of years in this natural process.

Tell us a bit about Nile Valley and its mission and purpose in Kansas City.

Nile Valley is the brainchild of Dre Taylor. Dre is a civic activist who a few years ago founded Males 2 Men, an organization that provides mentorship to kids growing up in and around the East Side of Kansas City. This part of the city is historically black and impoverished with a preponderance of crime. Dre was born in the neighborhood and has committed his life to trying to improve it for future generations, with Nile Valley being an extension of that. The neighborhood is also what is known as an urban food desert, with very few options for those seeking nutritious and healthy food. With Nile Valley Aquaponics, Dre is now producing tens of thousands of pounds of fresh fruit and fish, as well as jobs and education for those in the community.

How did you get involved in assisting Dre in his efforts?

Dre’s Nile Valley endeavor has come a long way from the school basement where it started. The property where it now sits was largely abandoned and primarily owned by the city’s land bank and a not-for-profit. As Dre worked with those entities to acquire the property, he began to fix up the land. His efforts got some publicity in the local news, which generated a buzz. Around this same time, I was involved in a leadership program with the Kansas City chapter of the AIA, Pillars. I was fascinated with Dre’s story and reached out to him to see if our program could do a charrette that could provide him with concepts for Nile Valley. We spent a half day touring the property and working with him, creating a handful of sketches. Dre was like, “This is great! Can you do some more?” So I brought it up to the HOK leadership team here in Kansas City.

What was the reaction from the Kansas City team?

They were a little skeptical at first. Designing farms that operate on fish-water is not exactly an established HOK practice area or market. Not to mention, aquaponics was a fairly new concept to many. But they quickly realized the many layers of this project, especially when it comes to sustainability and community. So we agreed to provide some pro bono renderings and designs that might help Dre and his vision to expand the farm. And since we’ve become involved, we’re now exploring how this type of sustainable food production could be part of other project types, such as stadiums, mixed-use developments, health-care facilities, airport terminals, and commercial office spaces as a way to provide people with access to fresh food. What started here in Kansas City has the potential to change communities across the world.

Tell us about your plan for Nile Valley. Did you have to study up on agricultural design beforehand?

The concept of aquaponics was not completely foreign to me or my HOK colleagues on the project – Jake Baker and J.J. Nicolas. We all graduated from the Kansas State architecture program, where we studied aquaponics as part of our environmental systems class. What I hadn’t seen before was an aquaponics system like what is used in a greenhouse on the scale that Nile Valley does it. And I have to say, what he’s done with limited resources and support is amazing. They’ve dug three trenches (much of it by hand!) that are 100 feet long and deep enough (6 feet) that they provide geothermal warmth in the winter. His greenhouses are made of plastic tarps that, in colder months, he covers with a transparent black cover to capture solar heat gain and keep the indoor temperature a balmy 60- to 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Our design opens up the site, making it transparent and welcoming to the community. We want it to be a place where people can hold events and where kids can come and learn about farming and food. It proposes new, permanent greenhouses, additional community grow beds, and repurposing the shipping container presently on site into a market and store. We envision that the expansion could double the amount of food currently grown on the site and ensure it remains a beacon for sustainable living in a neighborhood most in need.

What’s next for Nile Valley Aquaponics?

Dre and Nile Valley are in the middle of a capital campaign for the expansion, with two parallel organizational entities being formed. One would maintain nonprofit community outreach and educational programming and another would make the food production a for-profit entity. This would allow them to accept both investor and philanthropic capital as well as grants and alternative funding.