Debate: KC mayoral candidates talk $63M luxury hotel, crime, trash and neighborhoods

In a debate Saturday marked by promises of equitable neighborhood growth, Kansas City mayoral candidates Jolie Justus and Quinton Lucas said they would not support a $63 million luxury hotel proposed in the Crossroads Arts District.

The hotel, proposed by Whitney Kerr Sr. and Eric Holtze, is awaiting a vote by the Tax-Increment Financing, or TIF, board on the hefty tax incentives developers have requested. If it gets board approval next month, it would then require a vote of the City Council and mayor.

Developers hope to build the hotel, which would be operated by Hyatt, to achieve the five-star standard. They argue Kansas City needs such a hotel to compete with cities like Nashville, Austin and Las Vegas for coveted convention business. But in an election season marked by promises of better neighborhood development, it’s a proposal that’s politically fraught.

Asked whether he would support the project, Lucas’ response was simply “no,” eliciting the first applause break of the debate.

“There is no reason to support that when you’re also looking at the fact that our city general fund tax dollars are needed for things like fixing our roads, fixing deferred infrastructure,” Lucas said.

Justus said the developers had approached her when they began work on the project, which would lie in her district. She said the same.

“I told them no two years ago. I’m still a no today,” Justus said, “and that has not changed in the entire two years that we’ve been having this conversation.”

Justus and Lucas on Saturday both leaned into voters’ thirst for better delivery of the basic services Kansas City should perform, such as trash collection, street repaving and public safety.

The debate at Winnetonka High School was the first in a series hosted by The Star. The head-to-head contest gave the candidates an opportunity to cross-check one another and dig into their records at City Hall after dozens of mayoral forums where candidates struggled to stand out.

Both candidates promised a lighter touch on downtown and a stronger focus on equitable investment across the city. Justus promised to bring City Hall to the voters by creating a dedicated position in City Hall, attending neighborhood meetings and holding office hours. Lucas pushed for a better use of existing city resources and an investment in affordable housing.

The two come from divergent backgrounds. She’s from southwest Missouri and grew up with conservative family members. He was raised by a single mother on Kansas City’s east side.

Justus spent eight years as a Democrat in the Missouri Senate and is in her first term representing the 4th District.

A main tenet of her campaign message is that Kansas City has momentum, but not everyone is feeling it.

“We’ve seen our population continue to grow. We have seen unemployment rates continue to drop, but guess what. They’re not dropping in every single neighborhood,” Justus said. “We still have double-digit unemployment in zip codes across this city.”

Lucas, 3rd District at-large, comes from Kansas City’s east side. His mother, who he said gets upset when he acknowledges her at debates, raised him and his two sisters. He has been pushing for better use of the city’s resources, tamping down on development incentives and curbing violent crime.

“We need to make sure that we have a city where momentum isn’t just about big projects. It isn’t about big businesses alone,” Lucas said. “It’s about our neighborhoods. It’s about making your quality of life better each day.”

To both of them, Kansas City’s homicide and violent crime rate is the biggest issue.

“We have to make sure we are no longer on the top five list for homicides in this country,” Justus said. “It’s great to be on the top 10 list for best places to visit, and we cannot continue to grow if we don’t bring in new visitors and we don’t bring in new residents and retain the residents we have. But we’re never going to be able to do that if we don’t address the issues we’ve been talking about here today.”

Lucas, who attended Washington University in St. Louis, said St. Louis has a downtown baseball stadium, convention center and other resources. But the city is still plagued by homicides.

“You can build all the cool downtown things, and look at the cities — Baltimore, St. Louis, so many others, have all of these terrible issues in their city because they have not gotten their crime issue under wraps,” Lucas said.

The two also sparred over each other’s records. Justus criticized Lucas for voting last month against a plan to have the city take over trash collection it had outsourced to private contractors. He voted in favor of the final version Thursday.

Lucas argued he was asking pointed questions to understand whether the plan was responsible and criticized Justus for missing the committee discussion Wednesday.

She pushed back when he criticized her vote in favor of a $9 million road extension in the Northland he called the “road to nowhere,” but she said he wasn’t there for that vote.

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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.