Neighbors against a proposed hockey and events arena in south Overland Park have steeled themselves for another go with city officials – this time over public financing of the development at 159th Street and Antioch Road.
The city council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds at its next meeting July 11. If the hearing takes place as scheduled, council members will find themselves facing neighborhood opponents who have become more organized and determined since losing the battle on rezoning and permits three weeks ago.
Since then, many have joined a group called Overland Park Citizens for Smart Growth.
They’ve penned letters with links to articles about how other such arenas have done. They’ve enlisted a state legislator to help them out in Topeka. One opponent even dug down into campaign finance reports, calling out Council President Rick Collins for a $500 contribution from the developer in 2011.
The 300-acre BluHawk development includes a health care facility, retail and a mix of residences and hotels. There are also plans for a cinema and bowling lanes, and a branch of the Hutchinson-based Cosmosphere space museum.
Opposition has been mostly about the arena, however. Developers have added a 7,500-seat arena to the plan that would have the flexibility to host United States Hockey League games and events such as concerts and graduations. The draw from the arena and Cosmosphere will make the development unique and boost the businesses there, they said.
Neighbors turned out in force for earlier meetings on rezoning and special use permits, objecting to the amount of traffic an arena could generate, among other things. But the council majority voted with the developer.
Now the focus has turned to the STAR bonds, said Fred Wingert, an organizer of Citizens for Smart Growth.
“Where sales tax should be going is to pay for schools, Overland Park streets and services,” he said. With STAR bonds, it would be “going into the back pocket of wealthy developers.”
STAR bonds are a special type of public financing geared toward building regional tourist attractions. With STAR bonds, developers can use some of the proceeds generated by sales tax to pay for some of the building costs. The Kansas Department of Commerce first decides whether a project meets its standards to qualify.
The council had intended to hold a public hearing on the boundaries for a STAR bonds district June 20, when the rezoning was approved. But council members decided to delay that hearing until July 11 because they had not heard whether the state had given approval.
By late this week there was still no word from the state, but the item stayed on the Overland Park Citizens for Smart Growth has no charter and no Facebook page, but a lot of people on its email list who are united in their opposition to the arena, Wingert said. He estimated that about 1,000 residents are opposed.
Neighbors supported earlier iterations of the development that didn’t include the arena, he said.
“We’re for smart growth at 159 th and Antioch. We want to see restaurants and grocery stores, single family homes, retail and a hospital. We know it’s coming,” he said. But when the Price Brothers Management changed its plan to include the arena about three months ago, some nearby residents felt blindsided, he said.
The main roads are already loaded with traffic during rush hours, and the arena could tie things up for people wanting to get to the hospital going up in part of the development. Residents have also worried that rowdy hockey fans leaving the games could endanger other drivers.
Wingert and other opponents are now campaigning hard against the financing aspect, pointing to the financial problems Ralston, Neb., faces because of public financing for a struggling mid-sized arena in that Omaha-area town. Other ice rinks in Johnson County have closed and a new arena would compete with other event centers in the area, including one planned for Brookridge, he said.
Michelle Anthony, another arena opponent, cited pointed out financial troubles at another arena in Rio Rancho, N.M. as reasons the council should drop the plan.
“I fully support restaurants, business, and even the bowling/movie/museum, but I do not support the arena. My main objections to the arena are its size and the fact that the developer needs STAR bonds to fund it. I do not see the 7,500 seat arena as being financially viable,” she wrote in an email.
Developers had estimated that about $205 million of the $649 million cost to build the arena and nearby area might qualify to be paid with the bonds. However before any amounts can be set, the city must first set up the boundaries and have approval from the state.
“This can all stop on July 11. We’re hoping the city council doesn’t’ vote the largest tax increase in Overland Park history,” Wingert said.
The neighborhood group has waged a letter-writing campaign on city officials and to the Kansas Department of Commerce. State Sen. Molly Baumgardner came to the last hearing to voice her objections as well.
Daniel Patchen, another opponent, also questioned the ethics of Council President Rick Collins in a letter to Mayor Carl Gerlach and City Manager Bill Ebel that was shared with the Patchen pointed out a $500 contribution from Price Brothers and asked if Collins’ failure to abstain from voting on the land use issues was grounds for a recall.
A check with campaign finance records confirmed a contribution in that amount from Price Brothers in 2011. Collins’ total contributions for that period, from January1-February 17, were $7,502.
Patchen did not respond to emails asking if he is organizing a recall.
Collins said he had not had a chance to go back and review his records and couldn’t comment on the specifics about the contribution.
“All I can tell you is, regardless of who contributes to my campaign, the last thing that I think about when I’m on the dais, I’m voting on anything, whether it’s a rezoning, a special use permit, or anything else, the last thing that I am thinking about is who has contributed to my campaign. The dollar amounts are so inconsequential that they have no influence on any vote that I make,” he said.
Collins voted with the majority on the rezoning and special use permit for hotels, but cast a no vote for the special use permit on the arena at the previous meeting.