Kansas City voters approve single terminal at KCI and Mayor Sly James is happy
By an overwhelming margin Kansas City voters Tuesday approved a $1 billion, single terminal at Kansas City International Airport.
In the days and weeks leading up to the vote, prognosticators cast Tuesday’s special election as a close race, but predictions went by the wayside. Voters who wanted a new terminal captured a stunning 75 percent of the vote.
That gives Kansas City permission to demolish KCI’s distinctive but outmoded trio of horseshoe-shaped terminals in favor of a single, privately financed $1 billion terminal.
Passage of the ballot measure ends more than six years of study, false starts, political turbulence and disarray at City Hall, capped by a rocky selection process over the summer to finally choose a company to build the new terminal.
Now, a new facility, with spacious gate areas, upgraded restaurants and other amenities passengers routinely see when they land elsewhere, could be open by late 2021.
“When we get it right, there’s nothing we can’t do as a city,” Kansas City Mayor Sly James told a raucous pro-KCI election party gathered at the Royal Room in Briarcliff.
James, with less than two years left on his second and final term, staked his legacy on a $1.7 million airport campaign funded by the region’s civic and corporate leadership. And he basked in the glow of the decisive vote, posing for pictures among the exuberant crowd of political and civic A-listers at the KCI party.
Backed by television ads, direct mail and an ambitious door-knocking “ground game,” the effort sought to convince voters that a new air terminal was a must-have as an economic engine and gateway befitting the city’s heritage and ambitions.
The campaign also had the coordinated support of the business and civic community. Kansas City Area Development Council chief executive Tim Cowden and Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce chief executive Joe Reardon gave seemingly countless presentations to companies and civic groups to extol the virtues of a new KCI terminal.
Cowden, in reflecting on the KCI victory, invoked the Norman Rockwell painting “Kansas City Spirit.”
“I've looked at that picture for many, many years,” Cowden said. “Tonight I understand what that picture is all about.”
James pushed back hard against voter mistrust of government, and a deep fondness for the 45-year-old facility still considered by many residents exceptionally convenient for its short walking distances from curb to gate.
The effort worked many times over; the measure won handily everywhere in Kansas City. With nearly all precincts reporting, supporters landed 47,394 votes, compared to 15,567 from the opposition. That works out to 75 percent voting in favor. Turnout was about 20 percent.
“I wasn't surprised we won but I was surprised by the margin. This is a phenomenal victory,” said former Kansas City Councilman John Sharp. “It shows that people can see when something good is happening for one part of the city, it's good for the whole city. Our fates are linked.”
The Northland, which was seen as a potential obstacle for KCI, voted for KCI overwhelmingly.
“The old view of the Northland as a place where you get a lot of no votes is no longer the case,” said Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas.
Dan Fowler, a Northland councilman, lauded the campaign strategy.
“I think when you give people the facts, and you tell them the truth, they respond,” Fowler said. “And when you give them lies and misrepresentations, they don't.”
James had a word of advice for those who were critical of the single terminal movement.
“Whether you were a hater at the beginning, or a hater tonight, shake it off,” James said.
Dan Coffey, a spokesman for single terminal critic Citizens For Responsible Government, said he was disappointed.
“However, in the long run, we accomplished what we set out to do back in 2013, and that was to get the airport issue to the vote of the public,” Coffey said.
Approval by voters sets in motion a series of next steps. But the exact timetable remains unclear.
The city and its airport developer, Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate, must complete negotiations on a detailed construction agreement. The document, called a memorandum of understanding, must also be approved by the City Council.
The most contentious points involve the package of “community benefits” required by the council. These include guaranteed levels of participation for minority and women-owned businesses in design and construction
If in the event — still considered unlikely — that Edgemoor and the city are unable to each agreement, the city would turn to the firm ranked second by its selection committee, AECOM.
If all goes well, Edgemoor will borrow the money for construction, most likely through the sale of bonds. This will fulfill the city’s promise that no tax funds will be used to finance the new terminal. Any losses or shortfalls will be the company’s responsibility.
The road to a single terminal was meandering and bumpy, plagued by conflicting messages and a lack of transparency.
In 2011 Mark VanLoh, then-director of the Kansas City Aviation Department, announced — after little advance consultation with policymakers or the public — that KCI become a new single terminal, despite the public's affinity for the existing facility.
In early 2014 opponents gathered enough petition signatures to force a public vote on any changes to KCI.
Much of the early debate focused on whether a single terminal or a renovation of KCI was more likely to bring more flight destinations and other improvements in air service. Southwest and other airlines were initially opposed to a new facility. James appointed an advisory group that recommended single terminal.
The carriers eventually changed their position, and in May 2016 the issue appeared to be heading toward a November election. But after polling data showed significant opposition to selling airport revenue bonds for the project — because of fears that taxpayers would be on the hook if the airport failed — James pulled the plug.
The matter faded from the screen until May, when the mayor suddenly revealed an offer by the Burns & McDonnell engineering firm to design, build and privately finance a new terminal. James and City Manager Troy Schulte assumed that skeptics would fall in line because private financing would hold taxpayers harmless.
Instead, the attempt to award a $1 billion no-bid contract to the company after private meetings sparked widespread opposition and resentment.
James argued that Burns & McDonnell was the only company to step forward. But the city never sent out a formal request for proposal, a basic element of any public sector procurement process.
The project eventually went out to bid, drawing three other firms into the mix. It also leading to a remarkable public campaign by the Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell to galvanize public support as the “Hometown Team.”
But problems with the company’s financial proposal left it on the outside looking in. The city’s selection committee tapped Edgemoor.