Kansas City’s downtown was quite a sight Friday — under warm, midspring skies, thousands of people skipped happily from food trucks to rock ’n’ roll shows to art shows to the streetcar, and back again.
The closure of the Grand Avenue bridge, as concrete pieces began to fall off, caused barely a ripple. The folks at 18th and Vine got into the act. Smiles were everywhere. It was a scene unimaginable just 10 years ago, when downtown locked its doors at dusk and went home.
Boosters of the various projects that helped rebuild downtown took a victory lap. “What a perfect Kansas City evening!” someone with Union Station tweeted. It was a common sentiment.
The celebration may have quieted, at least for the moment, the chorus of critics who have spent years complaining about the cost of the streetcar project, or the subsidies for the Power & Light District, or tax breaks for downtown homes and businesses. Perhaps their voices are subdued for a reason: Given a choice, most Kansas Citians would almost certainly prefer Friday’s street party to the dismal reality of old downtown.
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Cranky naysayers are a feature of every major American city, and Kansas City is no exception. Usually it’s a small group of curmudgeons with outsized voices and a familiar refrain: Whatever you’re for, I’m against it. That was true with the streetcar, the entertainment district, the arena, the rebuilt housing and hotels that dot the landscape.
Of course, Kansas City also has a “yes to everything” community. For this group, no public subsidy is too big, no taxpayer guarantee too dangerous, no tax abatement too expensive to pursue. This community is particularly adept at cutting deals that rely on OPM — other people’s money.
Downtown’s joyous explosion last Friday was a sight to see, but it came at a cost. Taxpayers will be on the hook for millions in the Power & Light District for decades to come. Property owners along the streetcar line are paying for it. Downtown is laced with tax increment financing projects. Even your local newspaper has been the beneficiary of subsidies to stay downtown.
So which side has the better of the argument?
As always, the proper answer is balance — a careful measure of the risks and costs of public-private projects versus the potential reward.
The “just say no” crowd plays an important role when it forces policymakers to think hard about the fairness and cost of big-ticket deals. When it says no to everything, though, it forecloses the chance of the Friday evening Kansas City just enjoyed.
At the same time, the pro-development crowd can bankrupt communities if it hands out public subsidies like candy. St. Louis offered the NFL Rams a virtual blank check several years ago to coax the team to move from Los Angeles. Now the team is headed back to California, leaving St. Louis with an aging arena and a shrinking revenue stream to pay for it.
It looks like St. Louis could use a few more curmudgeons.
The best approach is careful study, one that involves hearing from the entire community. Cost and benefit transparency is essential: What are we giving up to build the latest attraction? Where might the money be better spent? What will residents think, or need, two decades from now?
Kansas City doesn’t always meet those standards. When it doesn’t, the curmudgeon crowd can work its magic.
The public won’t vote on a new airport terminal this year. Poor polling results, we’re told, have forced city leaders to rethink the project.
If that rethinking eventually leads to a better terminal — cheaper, safer, easier to use — the naysayers will have performed an important service for everyone and will deserve our thanks.
If KCI is never rebuilt, though, the airport may turn into something else. It could resemble what downtown used to be.
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