Major overhaul proposed for Kansas City development agency

Kansas City is about to pull the trigger on a sweeping overhaul of its economic development process that includes downsizing the board of its major development agency and giving the mayor more control.

The reforms are the result of the AdvanceKC process launched by Mayor Sly James in late 2011, but also are a continuation of ideas originated by his predecessor Mayor Mark Funkhouser in 2009. It is considered the biggest overhaul of the Economic Development Corp. of Kansas City since the agency was established in 1987.

The goals are to make the city development process more efficient by creating a single-point of entry for developers and investors interested in doing business in Kansas City, and giving the city more control over how its incentive programs, including tax abatement and tax-increment financing, are used.

“From the City Council point of view, we’re supposed to set policy but in fact everyone else is,” said Kansas City Councilman Ed Ford, chairman of the Planning, Zoning & Economic Development Committee. “I don’t see a project until everyone else has vetted it and by then, it’s tough to say no.”

Ford said the reforms are intended to help developers too, who often are confronted by an array of agencies with differing policies and approaches. They include the Tax Increment Financing Commission; Planned Industrial Expansion Authority, and Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority.

“From a developer’s point of view, time is money and it’s a competitive world out there for jobs,” Ford said. “We can’t be at a disadvantage because the process is longer or cumbersome. That’s another evil we’re trying to address.”

The new plan to be considered Friday by the board of the Economic Development Corp. calls for scrapping its current unwieldy makeup that ranges from 35- to 47 members, and replacing it with a nine-member board with a majority appointed by the mayor.

The new EDC board would include James; the city manager; the chair of the Council PZ&E; the immediate past chair of the EDC, and five members appointed by the mayor. The EDC board chair also would be appointed by the mayor. The proposal anticipates most if not all of the five at-large members will come from the private sector.

James could not be reached for comment, but his spokeswoman said the recommendations will make the “EDC more nimble and help it operate more efficiently.

“This new framework for the Board was actually a recommendation of Advance KC, so it's directly related to that effort,” said Joni Wickham. “Having the mayor name the board brings it more in line with the way many other city boards and commissions are assembled - appointments by the mayor.”

The current, larger EDC board, which includes representatives from several city and state development agencies as well as the Kansas City Council, local labor organizations and non-profit development groups, would become what is called an “advocacy council” that would act as an advisory group.

According to a flow chart prepared for the EDC, developers proposing projects under the new system would have their preliminary applications reviewed by the executive directors of the various development agencies. Representatives of taxing jurisdictions including the school district, county and library also could offer comments.

Those proposals would be evaluated in terms of how well they meet the city’s goals of creating good jobs, and spurring development or redevelopment. The initial review also will determine which city development agency and incentive tools would be appropriate for the proposed project.

The criteria for evaluating projects has not been completed, but the Council wants to come up with a more workable approach than the review policy developed by the Funkhouser administration in 2007. That Economic Development & Incentive Policy was quietly scrapped by the city last spring.

If a project meets the eligibility criteria, the EDC staff would then review the proposal according to the guidelines of the AdvanceKC strategic plan. It also would be examined to determine if the incentives would be the best use of taxpayer funds.

“On projects we deem worthy, we will fill the financial gap and no more,” Ford said.

One reform that’s already has been adopted by the Council was to merge the staffs of the agencies operating under the EDC umbrella, an alphabet soup that includes TIF, the PIEA and LCRA, and creating one bureaucracy to oversee development proposals.

At the end of the review process, the EDC staff will determine the type and amount of incentives the project requires and refer it to the appropriate development agency. After its customary review, the agency board’s would then make a recommendation to the Council for final consideration.

“The intent is to have a one-stop, streamlined entry into economic development,” Ford said. “We want to be quicker to respond with more certainty about what we can offer.”