Five years on, Power & Light District puts a charge into downtown revival

10/14/2013 2:09 PM

10/15/2013 11:10 PM

“How come we didn’t become a Detroit? We could have become a Detroit, with a dying center, but we didn’t.”

On the other end of the phone was Phil Kirk, the retired chairman of DST Realty and one of the city’s best thinkers on downtown development. I had turned to him for wise words about the Power & Light District.

The entertainment and retail district in downtown Kansas City has been up and running five years now. Kansas City and The Cordish Co., the district’s owner, have been consistent targets for mainstream critics and sideline cynics.

And, yes, the district has battled startup problems. With building the occupancy rate, remixing the tenant blend, revamping dress code enforcement, and fixing some infrastructure. Cordish does deserve credit for trying to work through those issues.

But then there’s the $14 million-a-year gap.

The district falls about that short of producing the tax revenues needed to cover the $20 million a year in principal and interest payments on the $295 million in bonds issued to build the district, put up garages, and upgrade streets, sewers and the like.

Cordish argues that the infrastructure improvements extend into the surrounding area and help other businesses. Still, the city will have to cover the shortfall for the foreseeable future. It’s money that could be spent on improving neighborhood streets.

Before returning to Kirk’s calm counsel, I’ll make a tendentious point.

Critics are right that the performance projections for the district were overly ambitious. But the district came on line in 2008 just as the economy went into a recession. And not just any recession, but the Great Recession. Name any company or project that has met expectations set before the recession.

Kirk keeps in mind a bigger picture. The city, he said, by putting the major league sports stadiums in eastern Jackson County, “gave up on big sports venues as a way to redo downtown. So the P&L didn’t just replace nine square blocks of blight with new buildings. It made what Kirk called a “dramatic statement of a major commitment to downtown.”

“We now have a shot,” he said, especially with the addition of the streetcar line, at uniting Crown Center and the Crossroads District with the new Kansas City Public Library and the River Market. The key link is the line of developments along the southern edge of downtown: the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, the Convention Center, the P&L and Sprint Center. And they could be joined on the west by the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music.

Kirk gave a similarly measured response to the $14 million gap.

“It’s an expensive start, no doubt about it.” But when you’re trying to save downtowns, “the first steps are awfully costly, but over time things happen that mitigate that cost.”

Kirk urged, “We’ve got to keep going. If we maximize that investment (in the district), then we’ll look at it sometime in the future.”

City leaders and Cordish could do a better job in explaining how the P&L could be a key puzzle piece in downtown’s ultimate revival.

The district is certainly part of the reason that millions more visitors a year come downtown and spend money throughout the area. Estimates from the Downtown Council reach as high as 10 million more visitors.

Look also at the addition of some smaller hotels downtown, the renovated buildings attracting companies, and the boom in apartment units attracting more residents. Cordish itself is going ahead with a new 311-unit apartment tower in the district.

Thousands more downtown residents will be paying earnings taxes that could more than make up for the $14 million gap. More residents could also increase business in the district itself, so the gap could shrink on its own.

Without the P&L, downtown would be less happening. Just last week the district was host to a rally of the U.S. men’s national soccer team. That wouldn’t have happened without the P&L.

If you think this is all just boosterism, drive down Main Street or Grand Boulevard some evening with all the marquees glowing and people walking about. Walk into the district itself, which buzzes with events on many nights.

Talk to people who actually live downtown — the jogging mothers pushing baby carriages, and people walking dogs and carrying groceries.

They know, despite the P&L’s issues, what it stands for.

Of course, the downtown revival doesn’t mean that Kansas City still couldn’t be mismanaged and become a Detroit. Taxpayer dollars and incentives should always be used judiciously.

Kansas Citians find it hard to admit success unless there’s no bones about it. But 25 years from now, I bet we’ll look at the P&L and be glad it’s there.

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