Dave Helling: Kansas City will again explore the conventional wisdom about a new hotel

06/26/2014 4:44 PM

06/26/2014 9:40 PM

Kansas City leaders are picking through the shards of their shattered Republican convention dreams, looking for some sparkle amid the debris.

Soon they’ll show you what they’ve found. Within a few months — certainly by the end of the year — the argument over public support for a downtown convention hotel will surface again.

Supporters of tax breaks and subsidies for such a facility will say its construction will help Kansas City land big events like the GOP gathering. Balderdash, opponents will reply. The party’s choice had much more to do with politics and money than hotel space.

Those opponents may be right. But for a useful thought experiment — and to provide an interesting lesson for all of us — let’s assume for a moment that a new convention hotel would guarantee a national political convention in the next 20 years.

Would you help build that hotel?

Some would answer yes — a national political convention, with its spending and publicity, would be worth the investment, not to mention construction jobs, hotel jobs and spinoff jobs nearby. Dallas voters made this very choice several years ago, agreeing to raise their sales tax just to build a city-owned convention hotel.

Dallas is a finalist for the GOP’s 2016 convention.

Others would answer no. In 2006, Jackson County voters rejected a sales tax to install a roof on Arrowhead Stadium, even with the explicit promise of a Super Bowl on the table.

Those voters decided their money should be spent on other things — that a splashy national event wasn’t as important as other public needs like schools or roads.

To govern is to choose.

That reality is often lost on community leaders who offer voters project after project in isolation, as if it were really possible to have it all. This August, it’s streetcars and transportation. Several Augusts ago it was the Sprint Center. In a future August, a downtown baseball stadium. (Note to sports talk show hosts: If a downtown ballpark is such a good idea, let the private sector build it.)

Next year, it will be a convention hotel. It may not involve direct taxpayer cash, but it will require major tax breaks and incentives, and Kansas Citians will have to decide if the results will be worth the cost.

Standing alone, the answer might be yes. But with all of the other challenges the city faces — stubborn crime, abandoned buildings, an expensive and underperforming entertainment district — the answer is more complicated.

The GOP’s decision to take its party somewhere else won’t change that.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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