With election near, KC mayor makes pitch for East Side streetcar support

07/29/2014 6:41 PM

07/29/2014 6:41 PM

With a new poll showing next week’s election too close to call, Mayor Sly James and others sought Tuesday to shore up East Side support for an ambitious streetcar expansion plan.

James joined several Linwood corridor civic leaders Tuesday and pledged to do everything he can to entice developers to the East Side, especially if the community will support the proposed streetcar expansion plan Aug. 5.

Critics of the plan, however, said that there are plenty of ways the city could already be helping the East Side, and that the streetcar isn’t the answer.

The poll, conducted July 24-Sunday, shows people are sharply divided on the streetcar ballot measure. In the poll, 51 percent of voters supported it, while 43 percent were opposed and 6 percent were undecided, with a 4 percent margin of error.

“Eight days out, the race is close and anything can happen,” said Titus Bond of Remington Research Group, which conducted the independent, automated survey of 961 likely primary election voters.

James, in a news conference Tuesday, was responding to concerns that the streetcar alone will not erase decades of city neglect and urban core decline. He predicted that streetcars coupled with other city initiatives can lure major development projects to the East Side, as is beginning to happen downtown.

“We really have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity here,” James said at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church on Linwood Boulevard.

If voters approve a transportation taxing district within a portion of Kansas City south of the Missouri River — Question A on the Aug. 5 ballot — it will set up a specific tax election in November. Those taxes would help pay for expanding the streetcar from downtown south on Main Street and east along Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue, plus a MAX rapid bus line south on Prospect Avenue.

At the news conference, the Rev. Wallace Hartsfield II, pastor at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, and Don Maxwell, owner of the Linwood Shopping Center at Linwood and Prospect, said they were part of a group of ministers and neighborhood leaders who have wanted assurance that the city will do more than just the streetcar.

“We didn’t think that it was enough just to have a rail car coming down Linwood. Coming down Linwood to what?” Hartsfield asked. “What is there to see? What is there to drop persons off for?”

So Hartsfield said they persuaded the mayor to provide a bigger commitment to the East Side. They joined the mayor in calling for the establishment of a “special impact district” that would use every development tool at the city’s disposal to benefit the area generally from 22nd to 39th streets and from the Paseo to Indiana Avenue.

The plan calls for the city to provide tax increment financing, tax credits and other financial support where appropriate, to aggressively lobby for federal and state assistance, and to proactively recruit developers to the targeted area.

Hartsfield conceded the initiative announced Tuesday was devoid of any specific financial commitment from the city and vague about how the effort would work or be measured.

“There’s a trust factor that’s going on here,” he said. “I’m hoping that there’s been a connection that’s been made with the mayor and with stakeholders, where we are trusting that he is going to help champion this cause.”

He also conceded he’s been torn about the streetcar proposal because it envisions a 1-cent sales tax increase within the proposed taxing district, plus special assessments for properties closest to the streetcar lines. He said the city will have to work to alleviate the tax burden as much as possible on the poor, and to make sure they benefit from that hefty taxpayer investment.

One critic of the streetcar plan said Tuesday’s announcement just confirms that the streetcar is not a silver bullet for economic development.

“When supporters of streetcars say streetcars drive development, we can’t know that,” said Patrick Tuohey, a Waldo resident and the Western Missouri field manager for the Show-Me Institute, a free market think tank. Tuohey said development along streetcar corridors often results from other financial incentives that the cities offer to lure in projects.

Tuohey said the better alternative is to have low taxes and minimal red tape, and he warned that higher taxes to support the streetcar may actually serve as a disincentive to businesses and residents along Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue.

Kansas City’s African-American political club, Freedom Inc., is also urging a “no” vote on Question A. The group is skeptical that streetcars are a catalyst for economic development and says the potential tax burden on the working poor is too high.

Gayle Holliday, a member of Freedom’s leadership team, said Tuesday she wasn’t familiar with the agreement that Hartsfield and others had worked out with the city, but doubted it would change Freedom’s position.

“It’s a little late to turn it around from our perspective,” she said. “We also are concerned about the fact that promises get made and they don’t get kept.”

As the streetcar election approaches, the pro-streetcar campaign has a bigger war chest, although the streetcar opponents have also received hefty contributions, some from a secretive nonprofit group.

The pro-streetcar campaign, dubbed Connect KC, has raised more than $260,000, with major contributions from law firms, unions, construction companies and the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City.

The anti-streetcar campaign, dubbed Smart KC, has raised more than $128,000, including $50,000 from mortgage banker James Nutter Sr. But nearly $76,000 has come from a nonprofit, Missourians for Responsible Government, that refuses to disclose its donors. Tuohey is the treasurer.

“The donors can step forward and identify themselves if they wish,” he said, refusing to provide any additional information. “That’s for them to do themselves.”

The Remington Research poll found nearly 60 percent of African-American voters supported the plan, while white voters were opposed, 50 percent to 45 percent. The plan was ahead in all age groups, especially among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Remington was founded by Jeff Roe of Axiom Strategies, who is not involved with either side of the streetcar campaign.

“An initiative only being at 51 percent at this stage in the campaign leaves the outcome unclear,” Bond said.

To reach Lynn Horsley, call 816-226-2058 or send email to lhorsley@kcstar.com.

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

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