In early 2006, Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes made a bold prediction.
It came as she defended City Hall’s past decisions to take on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to build the downtown Power & Light District and invest in other retail and office projects.
“We’re going to look like geniuses” in five or 10 years, Barnes told me.
Well, here we are, nine years later.
Do Barnes, former City Manager Wayne Cauthen, former Finance Director Deb Hinsvark and 12 former members of the City Council who borrowed heavily now look like geniuses?
Critics will choose that latter option, and provide evidence from a recent Star story to buttress their point.
Summed up, the Cordish Co. project is not coming close to meeting the optimistic tax revenue projections from a decade ago. That means most of the debt payments, which are far higher than revenues, must be paid by city taxpayers at a cost of millions of dollars a year.
The key takeaway for opponents is that the city should not have put taxpayers on the hook for the debt, which is siphoning much-needed funds from basic public services and will continue to do so for many years.
I agree with some of this teeth gnashing. I engaged in it myself at the time, wondering whether the city was burdening itself with too much debt.
Then-city Auditor Mark Funkhouser was the leading city official questioning the wisdom of borrowing so heavily. As Funkhouser presciently noted, “All I’m trying to do is point out the risks.”
With the benefit of hindsight, here’s my view in 2015.
No, Barnes and Co. don’t look like geniuses.
However, they did what they had to do: City officials took bold moves to finally try to eliminate a lot of blight and reinvest in a more vibrant downtown through the Power & Light District, hoping it would lead to even more reinvestment in the city’s central core, wooing residents and companies.
Don’t forget just how lifeless the heart of Kansas City was back then.
To her credit, Barnes didn’t want downtown to continue slogging along as it had with incremental upgrades under previous mayors Richard Berkley and Emanuel Cleaver. Big risks had to be taken, she told me then, because “progressive cities invest” in their futures.
Fast forward to today and — for a host of reasons that aren’t all about the Power & Light District — downtown’s residential population has more than doubled to 20,000 people. Developers are making huge private investments in hotels and apartments. And a two-mile streetcar line is under construction.
Kansas City is a far more appealing place to call home.
That’s crucial, because the city is competing with many others that haven’t sat pat in the last decade, either. Competitors for jobs and businesses — including Oklahoma City, Nashville, Denver, Tulsa, Cincinnati, Louisville, Seattle and Minneapolis — have improved their urban cores.
Sure, I wish a company now called Johnson Consulting would not have grossly overestimated the entertainment district’s tax revenues more than a decade ago. That was not helpful to city officials.
I wish Barnes and the city had struck a more taxpayer-friendly deal with Cordish, making it take on larger financial risks.
Looking forward, I hope the city has learned its lesson and will help build a convention hotel with the lowest possible use of taxpayer subsidies.
The reality is that the Power & Light project will be a long-term benefit for Kansas City, while carrying long-term costs for current and future residents.