Over the last decade, Kansas City spent a lot of money sprucing up the downtown area. The Power and Light district alone was predicted to cost nearly a half a billion dollars. However, developers said it would bring in more than that in taxes.
It hasn’t. Not even close:
Today, the project, which sits near the onetime headquarters of Kansas City Power & Light Co., generates less than one-third of what is needed to cover the debt service on the bonds. The city is setting aside $12.8 million in its budget for the fiscal year that starts next month to cover the gap, a notable hole in a $1.3 billion budget that calls for $7.6 million in cuts to the fire department.
Given the sluggish real-estate recovery, the city expects similar gaps to persist for years. “Our street maintenance has had to come down; our budget for neighborhood and community services has had to come down,” says Scott Wagner, a first-term member of the city council. “You have a very large expense associated with a certain project, and that can’t help but stand out.”
But Mr. Wagner and backers of Power & Light—including the district’s private developer, Cordish Cos.—say the development was successful as part of a broader effort to re-energize the city’s downtown. Under initiatives pushed around the same time, H&R Block Inc. built a new 17-story headquarters, and the city funded the bulk of a new $276 million arena, the Sprint Center.
Let’s hold up on the back patting for a minute while I introduce…facts:
With the heart of Kansas City reviving its pulse the past decade or so — at least as a place to live and play — why have businesses pretty much been a no-show? Census numbers indicate greater downtown, which stretches from the river to Crown Center, lost more than 16,000 jobs from 2001 to 2011, a 19.6 percent drop.
That’s 16,000 fewer potential customers for downtown’s bar and restaurants; a lot of empty space in office towers, and a continuing feeling the sidewalks are much quieter than they should be when things aren’t happening at the Sprint Center or Power & Light District or on a First Friday.
It’s also a no-confidence vote in the billions of dollars in major investments made during the last decade, much of it subsidized by tax breaks and hard cash from City Hall.
That’s a whole lot of bad news in one little blockquote.
It’s about to get worse:
Tom McDonnell, the recently retired CEO of DST, who spearheaded much of the company’s downtown growth over the past 20 years and is now leading the Kauffman Foundation, was blunt about downtown. He pointed out that it still has a long way to go when it comes to attracting and keeping private employers.
“Downtown does not have any attraction for employers because the overall cost is unrealistic compared to the advantages,” he said.
He suggested the city needs to focus on additional parking, perhaps locating several underground garages with green space above where people can congregate, and use its incentive tools as much as practical to encourage companies to come downtown.
Some also believe downtown Kansas City not only has the traditional suburban rivals, as do downtowns elsewhere, but additional competition in the form of the Country Club Plaza, a sanitized version of a downtown. And, in Kansas, it has competition from an entire state.
“I don’t think we can calculate the amount of damage this border war has done,” McDonnell said.
Here’s one more bit of info you should know about. It’s from October of last year:
The Kansas City metropolitan area is on something of a job-gaining roll, especially in Kansas.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday that the area’s unemployment rate was 7 percent in August, compared with 8.4 percent a year earlier. The report also noted that the Kansas side of the metro area had accounted for more than two-thirds of the area’s employment gains from August 2011 to August 2012.
Overall, the Kansas City metro area had 13,300 more employees on nonfarm payrolls in August 2012 than August 2011. About 9,100 of the net gain came on the Kansas side, which represents 44 percent of the area’s workforce.
“Johnson County for a long time has been the job growth engine for the metro,” said Doug Davidson, economist at CERI, a research organization, noting that the county’s strength has long been in the service sector.
The labor bureau said professional and business services accounted for the largest increase in metro area employment.
While downtown Kansas City is purging jobs, Gov. Jay Nixon is busy maintaining the status quo.
Gov. Sam Brownback, however, is coming to the border and laughing in our faces as he walks away with Missouri jobs.
Build the nicest facilities in the world, but if a business can make more money across the river, guess where they are going to go?