KC Streetcar too far away from Westport to justify the expense, merchants say

It takes about eight-and-a-half minutes to walk from Westport Road and Pennsylvania Avenue, the heart of the Midtown bar-and-restaurant district, to 39th and Main, a likely stop on the KC Streetcar's proposed extension from Union Station to UMKC.

The plan is the focus of a mail-in election now underway, and Westport business leaders have emerged as among its leading opponents. Many contend that at four-tenths of a mile, the rail line is too far away to be attractive to pedestrian patrons and not worth the additional tax burden owners would assume to finance part of the $220 million-plus project.

Operators of some of Westport's most popular destinations, including Kelly's, Johnny Kaws, McCoy's and Brew Pub, are backing SmartKC, the anti-streetcar group organized by attorney Sherry DeJanes, according to first-quarter finance filings. James B. Nutter & Company, whose late founder was a longtime streetcar opponent, and other real estate interests are also participating.

Only residents of the special Transportation Development District (TDD), which runs from the Missouri River to 53rd Street and State Line Road to Campbell Street, are eligible to vote in the mail-in election. According to Westport merchant and landlord Bill Nigro, that excludes most Westport business owners, who live elsewhere.

"We pay the tab and we have no say," said Nigro.

Westport business opposition touched off a minor tweet storm this week from stalwart streetcar supporters, who believe that the extension will be a boon to employment and mobility along the Main Street corridor. They said they might take their business someplace else.

"Welp, the latest 'SmartKC' campaign finance report has pretty much eliminated my interest in drinking and dining in Westport," said David Johnson, a member of the Main Street Rail TDD Board of Directors, a panel of seven elected last October by TDD voters. "As far as I’m concerned, they’ve all been fighting anything that doesn’t serve them directly for years," he added in a subsequent tweet.

SmartKC is being outspent by the main pro-streetcar committee, Connect KC, which is heavily bankrolled by developers, construction companies and trade unions that all stand to benefit from the project. Through Tuesday, Connect has raised $323,000 over the entire election period and has $56,000 cash on hand. SmartKC has $73,000 raised for the cycle but has just $7,200 in the bank.

The money underwrites a small, slow-motion campaign that will hinge on each side's ability to mobilize a relative handful of voters.

Only about 5,000 of the TDD's estimated 35,000 eligible voters applied for ballots prior to the April 3 deadline. This week, the Jackson County Circuit Court, which administers the contest, mailed out about 4,700 ballots. (Not everyone who asked for a ballot returned the application on time or were deemed eligible.)

Ballots must be notarized and returned to the court by close of business on June 12. Final results are expected to be certified by the end of that month.

DeJanes, who lives in Brookside but owns an office in Westport, speaks for those who contend that the streetcar is an overpriced and ineffective mode of public transport. Despite the spending gulf and cumbersome mail-in voting process that disadvantages many poor and elderly, she said, the race is competitive.

"I think we're close to half," she said.

The voting district approved by voters in 2017.

Westport is one of those areas beyond the one-third mile boundary. On the TDD map, it bumps out like part of a gerrymandered congressional district. The lines were approved by a Jackson County Circuit Court judge under the provisions of a state law allowing creation of TDDs.

Commercial properties with a market value of $1 million, for example, would pay about an additional $1,500 a year. The owner of a home valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $266 annually.

Nigro said Westport's 200 businesses and 4,000 employees are already shelling out plenty in sales and earnings taxes. Compared to the downtown Power & Light District, which remains heavily subsidized by the city, "We're a continuous slot machine.. We pay off every month," he said.

Westport also has its own taxing jurisdiction, a Community Improvement District (CID) that collects about a million dollars annually to pay for private security, marketing and other collective needs.

The additional 1 cent TDD sales tax would bring their sales tax load to 12. 1 percent.

"You'd think that if Westport was such an attraction, they would have put a stop in Westport," said Kim Kimbrough, executive director of the Westport Business League, which represents merchants. While the organization has not taken an official stance, Kimbrough is pretty clear about his membership's sentiments.

While business owners are unhappy, they're reluctant to talk about it publicly. Kyle Kelly, a member of the tavern's founding family, which has contributed $1,500 to SmartKC, declined to comment. BeerKC Restaurant Group co-owner James Westphal, which operates McCoy’s Public House, Beer Kitchen, and Char Bar, did not return a phone message. Nor did the Nutter Company.

It's roughly six blocks from the corner of 39th and Main Street to the doorstep of Kelly's, if you walk Main and turn down Westport Road. The possible 39th and Main station site is within the the quarter-to-half mile of bars and restaurants, generally regarded as an acceptable distance for most transit users.

"Westport is considered by everyone to be a walkable neighborhood from Southwest Trafficway to Main Street," Johnson said. "Same for the Plaza and the UMKC Volker campus (also in the TDD). "Everybody considers those walkable."

Not everybody. "What women are going to walk four blocks at night in any urban core in the country? "Are you kidding me?" Nigro said.