KC convention hotel backers aim for fast-track approval to avoid public vote

A rendering of Kansas City’s proposed downtown convention center hotel shows its planned relationship to the convention center in the foreground.
A rendering of Kansas City’s proposed downtown convention center hotel shows its planned relationship to the convention center in the foreground.

Backers of the planned 800-room downtown convention center hotel have proposed a new Kansas City ordinance they believe will accelerate project approval and circumvent a possible public vote.

Meanwhile, late Friday afternoon, the citizens group fighting the project turned in an estimated 3,800 petition signatures to the city clerk’s office, two days before Sunday’s deadline to submit enough referendum petition signatures to force that public vote.

The ordinance, introduced without discussion at Thursday’s City Council meeting, is scheduled to be considered June 6 by the council’s Planning, Zoning & Economic Development Committee and June 7 by the full council.

The bulk of the ordinance addresses three things:

▪ Adds the now-purchased American Hereford Association property at the southwest corner of Truman Road and Baltimore Avenue to the hotel’s already-approved Community Improvement District.

▪ Approves the zoning and development plan for the site bounded by Truman, Baltimore, 16th Street and Wyandotte Avenue.

▪ Permits an elevated walkway across Wyandotte.

But the last paragraph of the ordinance — recognizing it “as an ordinance with an accelerated effective date” relating to public improvements — is key.

“Upon passage, it goes into effect and therefore is not subject to referendum,” said Mike Burke, the attorney who leads the convention hotel development team.

Burke said that understanding is held by the mayor, the city manager, the city attorney and most of the City Council members.

Mayor Sly James and council members Scott Wagner, Jolie Justus, Alissia Canady, Scott Taylor and Jermaine Reed are listed as the ordinance sponsors. Burke said he believes most other council members are on board.

City Manager Troy Schulte said the City Charter provides for an accelerated effective date of ordinances when the matter includes commitment of city land.

Dan Coffey, a leader of the petitioning Citizens for Responsible Government group, countered that the group’s intent remains to get a public vote, and if an accelerated effective date is passed, “we’ve been in court before, so we’ll see where it goes.”

The group previously tried to force a vote on the hotel’s financing package. The council refused to put it on a ballot, so the group sued. A judge dismissed the lawsuit.

Burke criticized the group for “an attempt to re-litigate the hotel financing package that already was approved by the council and upheld by the (Jackson County) Circuit Court. … We think this is an abuse of process and that the group is misleading people because not a dollar of general fund money is committed to this project.”

The hotel development agreement provides for the city’s $35 million contribution to come out of the city’s convention and visitors tax. The hotel deal also commits city-owned land to the project.

Burke said the proposed ordinance is an effort to get everything about the hotel that still needs the council’s approval “rolled into one” and become effective upon signing by the mayor.

Kansas City’s election authorities next week will have to verify that the petitioners have at least 3,417 valid signatures of registered voters. If they don’t, the group still has 10 days to hit that number.

Kansas City initiative petitions typically require only 1,708 valid signatures, or 5 percent of the number of people who voted in the most recent mayoral election. But because this petition is an attempt to overturn already-approved city ordinances for the hotel, twice as many signatures are required.

If the petition effort works as intended, the hotel financing package could be put before Kansas City voters in November.

Schulte said the city would “have a better feel for where we are with the referendum” by the time the council takes up discussion in June.

One irritating point for hotel planners is the fact that a Leawood businessman, Phil Klein, has contributed at least $40,000 to Citizens for Responsible Government, according to filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

“It’s an abuse of process for someone from Leawood to throw a roadblock into a Kansas City issue,” Burke said.

Coffey responded that Klein “is a real patriot” and that “rather than nitpick about who gave money,” it’s more important to talk about the financing issue and give people a chance to vote on it.

The Star was unable to reach Klein for comment.

In other matters related to the convention hotel, Burke said the project team was close to getting a guaranteed maximum price document, but “we don’t have it yet, and we want to wait until we have the petition thing in the past.”

The hotel has been billed as a $311 million project, which includes construction, architecture, planning, legal and other costs.

Furthermore, Burke said, the guaranteed maximum price is “a preliminary number subject to massaging. We still may need to change a few things to meet the budget.”

Plans for the hotel were first revealed in May 2015.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley