It’s time for the Kansas City Council to decide whether to spend $27 million on improvements to the 18th and Vine Historic Jazz District.
Third District Councilman Jermaine Reed, who represents the 18th and Vine neighborhood, has introduced an ordinance (co-sponsored by 3rd District At-Large City Councilman Quinton Lucas) calling for $27.6 million in bonds to pay for upgrades to both the infrastructure and some buildings within the district.
It’s what’s needed, Reed said, for the historic area to reach the potential that everyone acknowledges has not been realized.
“This would really help enhance the years of planning that we’ve put into this, to make this project a reality,” Reed said.
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The bond-eligible projects, he said, are intended to make the area “a cultural hub and destination location” that everyone wants it to be.
But not everyone is convinced, and the request is likely to prompt a lively debate when it goes before a joint meeting Wednesday of the council’s finance and economic development committees. Reed hopes those committees will pass the measure forward for full council consideration.
Key projects are designed to improve the connection from 18th and Vine to the Crossroads Arts District and other parts of downtown. They include the 18th Street streetscape, a gateway plaza at 18th and the Paseo, support for more retail and infill apartments, stabilization of the historic Boone Theater, and money to bolster attractions such as the American Jazz Museum, the Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center, and the Black Archives.
The public investment is intended to leverage about $12 million in private funds from developers and other project supporters.
But finance committee chair Scott Wagner said he needs more persuading that this money will be well spent and will achieve the goal.
“One of my biggest concerns is that we not create an expectation that someone just walks in with a list of projects and the city goes to fund them,” Wagner said, adding that he has made Reed aware of his concerns.
“We’re just inviting a number of people from all over the city to come forward asking why they can’t do the same thing,” Wagner said.
Wagner wonders whether the city couldn’t seek a private developer to come in and make many of the same improvements, with tax incentives as financing. He said that if the council does approve this public funding, he wants to make sure that it will get a solid return on that investment and that the pledge of $12 million in private dollars is real.
Kansas City’s government has already invested more than $70 million in the 18th and Vine district since 1990. But the funding arrived in a piecemeal manner, and the district still lacks the vitality of other entertainment areas and remains very much a work in progress.
To address the ongoing shortcomings, Reed and other district boosters proposed a wish list of $7 million last December. But more worthwhile ideas emerged, and in January the City Council directed City Manager Troy Schulte to figure out how to pay for up to $18 million in improvements.
After studying the issue for several months, Schulte said it would cost up to $27.6 million to do the job right and “declare victory once and for all at 18th and Vine.”
The actual work would be done in three phases over three years. One bonding scenario envisions bond sales in 2017, 2018 and 2019, with the payback over 10 years from capital improvement sales taxes.
But Wagner wonders if this is the best priority for those capital improvement sales tax funds. He said that in meetings with neighborhood groups both north and south of the Missouri River, he hears a lot of questions.
“I think part of the issue is a perception that this is a want rather than a need,” Wagner said. “If it’s just the city making the investment, that’s a problem.”
Reed said he is not taking council approval for granted and he is not assuming he has majority council support. But he believes a number of council members see the merit, as do many in the community.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a prime mover behind the 18th and Vine improvements in the 1990s, wasn’t sure his congressional schedule would allow him to be in Kansas City to testify Wednesday.
But he sent a statement in support of the plan, saying it would allow the city to implement much-needed improvements to the 18th and Vine district.
“With the added attraction of the nearby Urban Youth Baseball Academy and the enhancements from this package,” Cleaver said, “we will soon see the historic district flourish as it should.”