Dave Helling

Kansas City almost lost Edgemoor at KCI. Here’s how the airport deal was rescued

The path to Edgemoor Infrastructure’s selection as the builder of a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport opened in September, when the city first chose the company for the job.

But Edgemoor’s bid would have almost certainly failed had the company and the community not gone through a messy trial separation in December.

The break-up saved the marriage.

You’ll remember the story: In an unexpected move Dec. 14, nine council members voted to reject a memorandum of understanding with Edgemoor. They didn’t send the deal back to a committee for more study or hold it for more negotiations. They killed it.

The decision drew the ire of much of the community (and this newspaper). Now, though, it’s clear the decision was the key moment in the KCI debate.

First, it helped Edgemoor understand local politics. Until the December vote, company officials largely acted as if the procurement process would be based on merit. They were wrong.

Its attitude changed dramatically after Dec. 14. Edgemoor engaged some of the city’s best-known fixers and consultants to help it reset the discussion with the City Council.

Edgemoor competed politically. It used robocalls to counter the mysterious robocalls from opponents. The firm reached out to minority interest groups.

By Thursday’s vote, the value of Edgemoor’s response was clear. The council chamber was crammed with stickered lobbyists, lawyers, communications specialists and business interests. Those stickers showed the company’s confidence in victory — and the importance of its checkbook.

Edgemoor had discarded its white hat. By last Thursday, the company was just as politically engaged as its opponents, if not more so. Muscle was as important as merit.

The second key change also came after the December vote, when the council agreed to set a time frame for negotiating a new memorandum of understanding, or MOU, with Edgemoor.

The decision was critical, and the outcome was not guaranteed. The council actually came close to starting talks with AECOM on Dec. 14, sending Edgemoor on its way.

Instead, council members agreed to an open discussion of their concerns with Edgemoor. That was important because negotiators had been scratching their heads — what does the council want?

Some wanted a better agreement for community services, it turned out; some wanted to reduce the city’s financial exposure; still others wanted changes in minority guarantees.

Each time one issue was solved, though, another popped up behind the scenes.

That was a problem. Edgemoor’s opponents only needed seven votes; the motives for those votes didn’t matter.

Open discussion and deadlines resolved that dilemma. Negotiators would finally get a list of issues to address. The process also provided a better MOU for council members genuinely concerned about the agreement.

Never-Edgemoor council members were in a tougher spot. They could no longer secretly exploit their colleagues’ concerns to undermine the Edgemoor deal.

For all of this, the outcome Thursday was still unclear as 3 p.m. approached. I’ve covered City Hall for more than 30 years, one way or another, and can count on the fingers of one hand the votes which were in doubt as the meeting started.

The Edgemoor vote tops them all. Eyes focused on council members Quinton Lucas and Kevin McManus, whose votes were thought to be in play.

Both said yes. Had they voted no, Edgemoor would be on its way home.

The decision had it all: tangled mayoral politics, interest group pressure, media attention, uncertainty. Oh, and $1 billion.

One council member said the number of moving parts was unprecedented in local government. It wasn’t the best way to pick an airport developer.

But it was Kansas City’s way, this time.