KEVIN COLLISON

City development overhaul moves forward

Updated: 2013-04-23T07:14:38Z

By KEVIN COLLISON

The Kansas City Star

A long-awaited plan for overhauling how Kansas City runs economic development is finally taking shape more than three years after it was launched.

The changes in the works for the Kansas City Economic Development Corp. fall far short of the radical makeover that originated in late 2009 with then-Mayor Mark Funkhouser, who wanted to dismantle the organization and return its functions to City Hall.

Mayor Sly James picked up the process, now called AdvanceKC.

Earlier this month, the Kansas City Council approved a resolution that marked the first tangible steps toward implementing the AdvanceKC plan. A couple of the more radical ideas have been scrapped, but it’s still considered the biggest overhaul since the Economic Development Corp. was formed in 1987.

The resolution calls for merging the staffs of the agencies operating under the EDC umbrella, an alphabet soup that includes TIF, the PIEA and LCRA, and creating one bureaucracy to oversee development proposals. About 50 employees are now scattered through the different agencies.

The resolution also calls for one point of entry into the city’s development world.

A developer would bring an idea to the EDC staff as a whole, and not pitch it to the individual agencies. The combined staff would then decide whether the proposal was appropriate and, if so, which incentive program would fit best.

That’s intended to stop what supporters refer to as shopping agencies, although they’re hard-pressed to come up with concrete examples of the practice.

The council did reject the most revolutionary idea that was floated, creating a “super board” of around 15 members that would run all the agencies, a potential precursor to someday having one super city development agency.

That was one of the recommendations of the consultant from Atlanta who was paid $192,000 to run focus groups and conduct other research for AdvanceKC beginning in 2010. It was decided having the same small group of volunteers supervising all the agencies would be just too much of a time commitment.

And looking back at the Funkhouser years, the AdvanceKC process has quietly scrapped the Economic Development & Incentive Policy that was Funkhouser’s main focus his early months as mayor in 2007.

That policy proved unworkable in practice and was one reason why some people believe development applications dropped substantially at City Hall.

The next phase of the AdvanceKC program calls for coming up with a more streamlined review that looks at a proposal’s quality of jobs, location, whether it’s a greenfield or urban redevelopment project, and longevity, including whether the applicant intends to own property or lease it.

In urging the council to adopt the resolution, James described the AdvanceKC changes as a way for the city to regain control of its development process. He described it as a result of more than 11/2 years of meetings and discussions with civic and government leaders, and development professionals.

“One thing it’s designed to accomplish is to retrieve some of the control of economic development back to this body,” the mayor said, “and have the council make decisions at the earliest possible time rather than after years of process and money being spent.”

James also said the new policy would give the city more say about where it wants development.

“We want to focus on jobs and people, and not just buildings,” he said. “We want an economic development approach that addresses all of the city, not just those places that always get economic development, but places that don’t.

“We want all the agencies working under one policy that this council sets.… Not that we want to have our hands around the throats of anybody, but we do have to be the ones in control.”

There are some questions about just how much the city can do when it comes to guiding development to an area. Incentives work only when there’s a developer willing to invest private money into an endeavor.

Identifying a neighborhood and saying this is where a business or project should go has not proven particularly successful, the most recent example being the ill-fated Citadel Plaza plan. The city spent $15 million settling lawsuits after it tried to force a retail project at 63rd Street and Prospect.

And if the mayor meant downtown when he was talking about places where economic development has always gone, that may not be such a bad thing for people living in poor neighborhoods. A recent report by the Brookings Institution found that jobs continued to sprawl to the suburbs.

An argument can be made that it’s a lot easier to get to a job in a healthier downtown, because of its much better mass transit access from the central city, than to reach work many miles away in the outer reaches of the metro where cars are practically the only feasible way to get there.

And having the City Council run development doesn’t necessarily equate to better judgment.

One of the bigger debacles recently emanated from a council plan to expand a tax-increment financing district and use its surplus funds to help finance construction of a soccer complex at Swope Park. The city retreated after the Raytown School District and Jackson County blasted the idea.

The AdvanceKC changes, as of now, also won’t help the dysfunctional TIF Commission. Since the council agreed more than three years ago to grant more power to the taxing jurisdictions, it has become more of a debate session than a development engine.

One thing that would help is if AdvanceKC finally puts to rest the steady drumbeat of criticism of the EDC that began with Funkhouser six years ago.

The turmoil has undermined staff morale and hasn’t gone unnoticed by economic development officials on the Kansas side of the metro who haven’t been similarly distracted.

To reach Kevin Collison, call 816-234-4289 or send email to kcollison@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/kckansascity.

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