A grass-roots group turned in several thousand petition signatures Tuesday to challenge a controversial Crossroads Arts District tax incentive deal.
And while the group said it was fighting on behalf of the Kansas City public schools, Mayor Sly James said that if the petition drive succeeds, it will likely kill a worthwhile project that would have benefited the school district as well as the city.
“Deciding economic development projects by public vote is no way to foster a vibrant economy in Kansas City, Missouri,” James said. “We must balance tax incentives with the city’s continued growth and momentum. However, a forced and politically motivated election is no way to define that policy.”
The petitioners seek to overturn a tax-increment financing deal for philanthropist Shirley Helzberg to renovate a vacant warehouse at 1640 Baltimore Ave. into an environmentally state-of-the-art headquarters for the BNIM architecture firm.
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The petitioners need just over 3,400 valid signatures of registered voters to mount a referendum. They turned in 440 pages Tuesday, although many pages had fewer than 10 signatures. If the election authorities find insufficient signatures, the group then has 10 more days to try to fulfill the requirement.
Critics argue the financing package, which calls for $5.2 million in incentives on a $13 million project, redirects too much money into the development and away from the school district, library and other taxing jurisdictions.
The project has become a flashpoint for a larger debate over whether Kansas City should start weaning developers off of tax incentives in more prosperous areas west of Troost Avenue.
In a work session Tuesday with council members, James said that if the group gathers sufficient signatures, hopes to salvage the project are over.
That’s because the architecture firm can’t wait for the outcome of an election next year, nor can it wait for a weeks-long court battle over the legality of the referendum language.
BNIM’s current lease in the TWA Building, 1735 Baltimore Ave., runs out next December, and the company needs to be in its new headquarters by then. Unless construction at 1640 Baltimore can begin soon, the mayor said, the project won’t be finished in time.
“The deal would be dead,” James said. “It’s sensitive to time.”
The mayor was clearly frustrated by what he sees as an illogical petition challenge from people who argued the project would hurt the school district.
“The taxing jurisdictions would make more money with the development than without it,” James said. “It’s really ridiculous.”
Opponents of the project have argued that the Crossroads area is vibrant enough now that development should occur without tax incentives. They opposed the redirection of property tax dollars away from the school district and toward the Helzberg development over 23 years.
Jan Parks, a member of the committee of petitioners, said Tuesday they never had any quarrel with the project, just the financing.
“It’s too bad,” if it kills the project, she said, but many people feel those incentives should be directed to the more neglected inner city.
“It had gotten to the point that we thought something needs to change,” she said.
But James pointed out that the school district would collect more than $100,000 in payments in lieu of taxes annually with the new project, versus about $20,000 in annual property taxes with a vacant building just sitting there.
James said if this project dies, the next challenge will be to make sure BNIM doesn’t leave the city or get lured to Kansas with its generous incentives policy. James said the company looked at 30 potential sites, but their preference was to locate at 1640 Baltimore, and it’s unclear what other options are available to them in Kansas City.