The multi-year effort to bring a Healthy Campus to downtown Kansas City, Kan., is officially on hold — at least until a grocery store operator is on board.
The Healthy Campus — which would combine a new YMCA, community center and grocery store — was a signature project of former mayor Mark Holland, who was unseated in November. But Thursday night, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City Kan., Board of Commissioners, by 6-1 vote, agreed with new mayor David Alvey that the overall project should be paused.
“I firmly believe and am firmly committed to a grocery store in the northeast and a downtown YMCA-slash-community center,” said commissioner Brian McKiernan. “But the problem is we only have one great partner for that partnership.”
The commission agreed to come back in 90 days and reevaluate whether the project could be put back on track.
It was an abrupt change after they voted 9-1 in December to approve $2 million to buy land for the Healthy Campus. The decision came over the objections of community group leaders, who said they feared the delay might derail the entire project.
They pointed out that the YMCA of Greater Kansas City had already raised millions of dollars and the Wyandotte Health Foundation had offered $1 million.
“It seems to send a bad signal to donors that have committed to the project,” said Beth Low-Smith, vice president of policy for KC Healthy Kids.
How close the Unified Government actually is to finding a grocery store became a pivotal part of Thursday’s debate.
Commissioner Melissa Bynum, the lone “no” vote, said she was caught off-guard when Alvey and county administrator Doug Bach said the city was not close.
“Tonight is the first time I heard the sentence ‘no grocery operator’ and that’s stunning for me to hear,” Bynum said. “Because what I’ve heard up until then was ‘We’re working with an operator, we’re very close to having an operator, the pen is in their hand.’ ”
Bach said he had been optimistic about talks with a potential grocer that didn’t want to be named publicly until a deal was done.
But new information from that grocer had made him less optimistic and purchasing land and issuing bonds for construction and would be risky without a firm commitment from a specific grocer.
“If we go through it and do a design and then ultimately find a grocery operator that says they’ll come to the area but maybe they want to be across the street or maybe they want to be designed in a different fashion, that could derail the project completely,” Bach said.
Alvey implied that the potential grocer was not only seeking help in building the store, which he thought was reasonable, but was now also seeking an annual subsidy from the Unified Government to run it.
“Operating subsidies is another matter and if the model were not to succeed in five years it would be a slap in the face if we were forced to shut that store,” Alvey said.
Alvey said the Unified Government is looking at other grocer options and he believes a more sustainable model can be found.
He said he had faith that Kansas City YMCA president and CEO David Byrd could hold together donations for that part of the project until the grocery store was secured.
Byrd said shared some of the concerns about keeping the donors on-board and was working the phones with them Thursday.
He said the YMCA’s current Kansas City, Kan., location was more than 100 years old and in need of serious repair if a new building is too long in coming. He also warned that if the city didn’t act soon it would miss its window to apply for federal tax credits and would have to wait until next year.
“We will be facing some challenging decisions if we continue to delay,” Byrd said. “But we’re committed and are with you.”
Nearly all who spoke at Thursday’s meeting said they had little or no notice that the commission was going to discuss pausing the Healthy Campus project until it appeared on the meeting agenda two days before.
Bynum said that was disappointing given how involved the public had been in planning the project.
“We were working on something that could be a catalyst for real change for so many people that live in this section of the community, and I don’t want us to give up on that,” Bynum said. “I simply ask that we do not give up on working on the vision that we had so much public engagement on for so many years.”