Kansas City Council has good reasons to reject election on downtown convention hotel

The new 800-room downtown hotel (center) is expected to cost $300 million.
The new 800-room downtown hotel (center) is expected to cost $300 million.

Kansas City’s elected officials are wrestling with a difficult decision that will affect the future of an important project in downtown’s resurgence.

Do they push ahead with city assistance for a $300 million hotel, as has been promised to developers in signed agreements at City Hall?

Or do they put a recently submitted initiative petition on a 2016 ballot, letting voters decide whether to pursue the project with public funds?

A decision either way is likely to result in a lawsuit, so Mayor Sly James and the City Council must do what’s best for Kansas City in the long run.

Based on information The Star has reviewed in recent days, the council has good reasons to reject the election and proceed with the hotel project.

As strong believers in the right of the people to petition their government, we recognize the hazards in this approach. City Hall should never ignore taxpayers who question how their dollars are used.

However, this is a unique case.

▪ City officials have presented legal arguments that this project is too far down the road to be derailed by a public vote. Just because someone doesn’t like what elected representatives are doing doesn’t mean all of their decisions can be undone. Ultimately, who’s elected to office matters most.

Council member Scott Taylor put it quite well at a marathon meeting last week: The petition leaders represent the views of just over 2,000 people, while the council is elected to represent the views of more than 460,000 people.

In addition, if the council meekly allows this petition on the ballot, it opens the possibility to future initiatives that could try to kill or change other agreements and contracts the city has entered into with dozens of developers. That would have a huge chilling effect on economic development in a city desperate for it.

▪ Leaders of the petition effort have not presented reasonable objections to the project absent the usual suspect: They don’t want public funds spent on it and, instead, want the private sector to pick up the tab.

Yes, that would be wonderful. But in the real world, that’s not going to happen. City Hall has solicited hotel developers for more than a decade, yet always before now rejected their outlandish demands for taxpayer support.

City officials have properly protected taxpayers regarding public assistance in the current hotel pact. The project does not require new citywide taxes nor city guarantee of the public debt, two points vigorously promoted by James.

Meanwhile, the hotel’s opponents in the petition campaign did not act in a timely fashion to change or stop the project when they had a better chance to do so, especially at public hearings on the hotel.

Hotel developers are right to be concerned about waiting for the outcome of an election next April. Borrowing and construction costs could rise, adding millions of dollars to the cost and imperiling the project.

Finally, would Kansas Citians support the hotel financing if given a chance? We bet the answer is a strong yes; even a petition leader acknowledged that potential outcome last week.

That likelihood tips the scale even further toward James and the council staying on course with the hotel plan.