Dave Helling

Which projects should be funded by KC’s East Side sales tax? The answer is important

It was easy to be optimistic last week about the future of Kansas City’s East Side.

Dozens of residents — developers, designers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, former politicians, others — crowded into a room at the Southeast Community Center to talk up plans for spending the one-eighth-cent sales tax now collected for central city projects.

There were 22 requests for cash. They added up to about $24 million, three times what the tax will raise in its first year or so. The Central City Economic Development Sales Tax Board will make recommendations to the full City Council, which has the final say.

Some proposers are likely to be disappointed. There simply isn’t enough money to go around, at least at first.

But the energy in the room was unmistakable. Chris Harris needs $150,000 for a golf project at 40th Street and Wayne Avenue. Dre Taylor wants $1 million to improve his food business at 29th Street and Wabash Avenue.

There are plans for early childhood education buildings in the central city district. Affordable housing. Grants for housing renovation. Child care.

There isn’t an obviously bad project on the list.

That will make the final decision difficult. Will the sales tax board recommend partial funding for several plans, so the money can be spread around? Or will it pick one or two major projects and ask the other proposers to reapply for future funding? It isn’t clear.

Some supporters have argued for “leverage”: spending tax money only on projects with additional funding from other sources. Others support “shovel ready” brick-and-mortar proposals.

It’s apparent, though, that the City Council will find it hard to change the recommendations of the tax board, even though there will likely be pressure to do so. Members of the council will face serious criticism if they wade into the specifics of the competing plans once the committee has finished its work.

The hearing also revealed the folly of seeking sales tax funds for 18th and Vine projects. The entertainment district needs to get in line to ask for funds, just like other proposers.

There is a role for the City Council to play, though.

The abundance of quality proposals reflects the real need for improvements on the East Side. But it also suggests a need for an overall strategy to improve the city’s poorest neighborhoods. That strategy is still hard to see.

At least one person at last week’s meeting pointed this out. How do these projects connect with each other? Where is the best place to start rebuilding the East Side? Where should the community focus its work — on housing, child care, education, nutrition or something else?

The City Council should keep those questions in mind as the recommendations for spending come in.

There is a real fear on the East Side that the sales tax program might be squandered. It’s almost certain East Siders will ask for a renewal of the tax in five or six years, and they’ll want concrete evidence that it not only built things but brought needed improvements to the entire community.

It’s easy to be optimistic. Troost Avenue is undergoing a major transformation. Housing projects are popping up on the East Side. Sidewalks are being fixed. Neighborhood schools are slowly but surely improving.

The Central City Sales Tax program will soon be a key component in that rebirth. Spent wisely, it could mark a turning point in the city’s history.