Steve Rose

Steve Rose: Success for anti-hotel petitioners would wreak havoc in Kansas City

A proposed 800-room convention hotel behind the Kauffman Center would be an asset to the region.
A proposed 800-room convention hotel behind the Kauffman Center would be an asset to the region.

When it comes to an 800-room downtown convention hotel — a project still embroiled in controversy — we all have a dog in the hunt.

The economic impact of major conventions ripples throughout the region.

Several nationwide groups have already declared Kansas City will be their convention destination when the hotel is built. They would bring thousands of visitors here to attend meetings and see the sights.

Those numbers would fill downtown hotels, as well as set off what the hotel business calls a “compression” effect. Large conventions push other visitors who might have stayed downtown to hotels in outlying communities, say, Overland Park

“Nothing could please us more than to have downtown hotels full,” an official at the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau told me.

The recent announcement that the Shriners would bring 20,000 conventioneers virtually assures occupancy at hotel locations throughout the metro.

Unfortunately, we who do not live in Kansas City have little say about whether the hotel gets built.

But that should not stop us from speaking out about the political fiasco the hotel plans have set off.

The contract between the city and developers to build the hotel is a done deal. Documents were signed, hands were shook. It is a binding contract.

Now comes a miniscule slice of the Kansas City population to protest. Under a crazy charter provision, citizens in Kansas City can file a petition with the signatures of just 5 percent of those who voted in the last mayoral election. That amounts to a mere 1,700 valid signatures.

The goal is to undermine the signed contract and put the matter to a vote of the public.

This is no way to run the public’s business.

If every deal that is struck by a vote of the City Council can be forced onto a ballot, say goodbye to good-faith negotiating. Who would ever want to enter into a contract that is not worth the paper it is printed on?

Consider, for example, Kemper Arena. What if the city struck a deal with a company to buy Kemper with certain tax breaks? And then 1,700 malcontents decided to force it onto a ballot? It is possible the deal would be un-done, and, perhaps, no deal would ever get done. Meanwhile, the buyers and the city would have lost time and energy pursuing a lost cause.

Kansas City’s legal team has concluded the anti-hotel petition is invalid.

Protesting citizens think they have the right to pluck a signed contract, approved by duly elected officials, from the city’s grasp.

This could end up in court, where a judge ought to determine the petition is illegal.

In the meantime, the council must not cave in.

To yield to petitioners would create chaos from that day forward. City officials could hardly make a deal with anyone with this albatross of a veto lurking in the background. A tiny fraction of the population would dictate the future of agreements, particularly economic development contracts.

The proposed convention hotel would breathe new life into a struggling convention business in Kansas City and would be a great asset to the metropolitan area.

But that, really, is beside the point.

People are being presented with a false choice.

This is not about economic development versus the rights of the people.

This is about the rule of law and the ability of elected officials to conduct business on behalf of the city.

So-called grassroots democracy is being sorely abused when used in this manner. It threatens to make representative government a farce, and that must not stand.

Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist: srose@kcstar.com

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