Government & Politics

‘Wheels up, Kansas City’: Mayor, city leaders break ground for KCI terminal

Kansas City is “no longer an understudy to anybody,” Mayor Sly James told hundreds of community, civic, political and business leaders who gathered Monday to celebrate a groundbreaking for the new $1.5 billion single terminal under construction at Kansas City International Airport.

“We used to be known as a city that would never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” said James. “That is no longer the case.”

James’ remarks cap years of study, false starts, negotiation and political drama. It comes more than a year after voters overwhelmingly gave the city approval to move forward on a new airport.

For the VIPs assembled under a tent near the shuttered Terminal A, where the new facility will rise, it was a moment for civic swagger. Crews already working on demolition of the old ring-shaped terminal let James hop onto a track hoe and knock down some of the concrete.

Now it’s “Wheels up, Kansas City,” said Mitch Holthus, voice of the Kansas City Chiefs, who hosted the ceremony.

Construction on the 39-gate facility is expected to take four years.

“In 2023 we’ll gather here again,” said Geoff Stricker, managing director for developer Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, “but instead of arriving to a terminal that time passed by, you’ll arrive at one of the most state-of-the-art facilities in the country.”

James and business leaders envision the new terminal as a magnet for employers and gateway for a city aspiring to grow as a destination for tourists, conventions and sporting events.

When Kansas City chases major conventions, the airport holds it back, James said, specifically citing its attempts to land the Republican National Convention. He said the same about the city’s lack of a convention hotel last year.

James said the airport has had a catalytic effect even though it is at least four years from taking on passenger one. The new convention hotel under construction near the Kansas City Convention Center and the city’s competitive bid to host World Cup matches in 2026 are a direct result of its commitment to a new air terminal, he said.

“Kansas City is going to continue to build on the momentum that we have to become that world class city that we’ve always known we were, but now we’re actually ready to show the world,” James said.

For James, Monday’s groundbreaking brought to closure one of the most significant projects of his administration, which will end August 1. It is part of a record that includes the hotel, creation and possible extension of a streetcar along Main Street, passage of an $800 million bond ordinance to improve the city’s infrastructure and the continued revitalization of downtown.

The final test of James’ clout comes next week when voters decide on his proposed 3/8-cent sales tax suggested to fund a pre-K expansion.

The groundbreaking also ends a long winter waiting on airlines that serve KCI to come to agreement on the cost of the project.

In November, tension bubbled to the surface when two smaller airlines — Allegiant and Spirit — announced they couldn’t support the then-$1.64 billion deal. The airlines asked for another study to verify the terminal’s price tag and negotiated for weeks over how to divvy up the $20 million annual cost of a new baggage claim system.

At the same time, city officials were working to secure Federal Aviation Administration approval of an environmental assessment of the site, which had to be completed before work could begin.

A discussion about how to pay for early design work and site preparation became politically fraught when some council members objected to the idea of borrowing funds from other parts of the city’s budget. The city promised repeatedly that it would not use taxpayer money for the new airport. To some, the idea of borrowing money, even temporarily, broke that promise.

Eventually, city officials settled on a short-term bond borrowing that will be rolled into the long-term financing plan for the airport. The city is planning to issue bonds through the Industrial Development Authority, which will be repaid through fees from airlines for use of the airport. In the event airport revenue is not enough to service the debt, the airlines have agreed to guarantee it.

Capping off his remarks, James thanked the voters who approved the new single terminal with more than 75 percent of the vote in November 2017.

“At the end of the day not one of us would have been here without the voters,” James said.

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Allison Kite reports on City Hall and local politics for The Star. She joined the paper in February 2018 and covered Midterm election races on both sides of the state line. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism with minors in economics and public policy from the University of Kansas.