With a heavy emphasis on caution, the Overland Park City Council agreed Monday to move forward on the controversial tourism aspect of the $700 million BluHawk Development that includes a sports arena and space museum.
Council members voted unanimously to approve the boundaries of a special taxing district to help developers pay for the project. The next step is to work out the specifics of the financing plan and gather more material to present to the Kansas Department of Commerce, which has approval power over the deal.
Although the vote was unanimous, some council members expressed concerns over the feasibility of the plan and voted for it merely to start a more rigorous examination of the costs and tourism potential.
Council member Terry Goodman laid out a long list of questions about the project that he did not feel had been adequately answered.
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“As elected officials, we must be prudent in the investment of public money without regard to its source and do so only when the need has been clearly demonstrated, the investment determined to be reasonable and the prognosis for success fully vetted. We’re not there yet,” he said.
The proposal involves the northern part of a 300-acre development in the area of 159th Street and Antioch Road.
Developers Price Brothers Management Co. want to add a hockey and events arena and a branch of the Hutchison-based Cosmosphere space museum to a mix of hotels, retail and single-family homes and apartments planned for the area.
The southern part of the development includes a hospital, but was not part of the discussion.
The public hearing for BluHawk had been on hold several weeks as the city awaited word from the Kansas Department of Commerce on whether the northern part of the project could qualify for the sales tax revenue, or STAR bonds, developers say they need. STAR bonds are tourism-oriented form of public financing. If all conditions are met, the bonds allow a portion of the future sales tax revenue from a STAR bonds district to pay a part of development costs.
The city got word last week that the district meets the eligibility requirements.
Neighbors opposed to the plan turned out for the public hearing, as they have in the past when the city approved a special use permit for the project.
Several questioned the financial risks and said the city should not give up taxes when the revenue is needed elsewhere. “We don’t want the money spent in that way,” said Betha Regan of Overland Park. “They’re asking for $200 million from the state of Kansas for 20 years when it could be spent in such better areas.”
Some neighbors were encouraged by a letter from state regulators asking for more information on the eventual project. On Aug. 4, Secretary of Commerce Antonio Soave notified the city that the project meets the criteria for a STAR bonds district. But he also asked the city to consider the cost.
“I have initial concerns about the size, location and estimated cost of the project,” Soave wrote. “Please consider lower-cost alternatives and keep in mind the state’s financial capacity to participate in funding the project.”
In his letter to City Manager Bill Ebel, Soave cautioned that eligibility of the bond district is only a step in the process. The commerce department will need more information for its review of the eventual financing plan.