Mission Gateway developer Tom Valenti started a meeting at the Sylvester Powell Jr. Community Center on Thursday evening by telling a crowd there what had been announced the week before: No more Wal-Mart.
That elicited a hearty round of applause from the gathering of about 50 people in Mission.
Wal-Mart’s decision to abandon the long-stalled Mission Gateway project gives Valenti’s plans some semblance of renewal: Residents by and large didn’t want the ubiquitous retailer and made their feelings known at several public meetings over the years.
The tone of Thursday evening’s meeting marked a departure from those previous meetings where Valenti typically encountered criticism. Instead, residents offered their ideas and shared a dialogue with Valenti.
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Valenti, the Syracuse, N.Y., principal with the Cameron Group who has tried for more than 10 years to get development started at the 16 acres between Shawnee Mission Parkway and Johnson Drive, told Mission residents about his challenges with the project over the years, as well as his hope for the future.
First, the future: Valenti said he wants to start construction next spring on a project that replaces a 155,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store with three smaller retailers. Many aspects of his previous plans remain the same — apartments, restaurants, an Aloft hotel and an Element extended-stay hotel. Valenti said he’s pursuing a grocery store, a sporting goods shop and a computer-related shop.
“But that could change,” he said.
He didn’t name the potential tenants.
An office building is possible, but Valenti said he would need a tenant to agree to occupy at least half of it before he could obtain financing.
To make the project happen, Valenti said he needs a combination of tax increment financing and a community improvement district — two development tools that redirect taxes generated by the project to reimburse the developer for certain costs.
Valenti suggested that he may need general obligation bonds, which would require the city to pledge its credit behind the project and cover debts if Mission Gateway underperforms.
“I wish I didn’t have to ask for it, but I have to ask for it,” Valenti said. “I hope we’re not going to need general obligation bonds.”
Such incentives would require Mission City Council approval.
Mission Mayor Steve Schowengerdt said the council’s appetite for general obligations bonds will depend on how much is requested.
“It would not be my first choice,” he said.
Valenti recounted the long history of his experience with Mission Gateway since the old Mission Mall was demolished. He described near misses, like the time he said he came within 24 hours of signing a letter of intent to relocate AMC Entertainment Inc.’s corporate headquarters from downtown Kansas City. AMC decided in 2011 to move to Leawood’s Park Place development instead.
And then the issue of Wal-Mart, which he once said would be the “rocket fuel” to finally get Mission Gateway going but instead became a touchy subject among Mission residents. Mission residents didn’t want the retailer, and Roeland Park leaders didn’t want to lose their Wal-Mart store and all the tax revenue it generates for the suburb’s budget.
“I understand the applause about there’s no Wal-Mart; however, Wal-Mart is the world’s No. 1 bricks-and-mortar retailer, they’re the No. 1 retail credit, they’re the No. 1 employer,” Valenti said.
“I understand the misgivings about Wal-Mart. Please understand, though, we had a lease signed with Wal-Mart and the City Council had approved the plan with the Wal-Mart in it. We had a signed lease and I had an obligation. They didn’t back out and, quite frankly, I may not be the smartest guy in the world but I got the message back in April when it was clear the voters did not want Wal-Mart.”
In Mission’s April elections, a slate of candidates opposed to the Wal-Mart-anchored development won seats on the Mission City Council, stacking the deck against Valenti’s plan. Wal-Mart later pulled out of the development and opted to renovate its Roeland Park store.
Valenti recounted a number of retailers that he has pursued for the site — Trader Joe’s, Kohl’s, Menard’s, many others — that have all said no. Valenti said he had been in negotiations with Costco, the wholesale retailer, but that plan did not come to pass.
Still, he said he continues to work with several retailers.
After addressing the crowd for nearly 90 minutes, Valenti thanked them for their time. And he got his second round of applause of the evening.