For years, no one paid much attention to the long-empty building at 1640 Baltimore Ave.
Today, the fate of the structure could dramatically affect how taxpayer subsidies are handled in Kansas City.
The bitter arguments and finger pointing continue over how developer/philanthropist Shirley Helzberg wants to use $5 million in future tax revenues to redevelop the building in the Crossroads Arts District.
The uncertainty lingers as well.
Maybe Helzberg will work out a deal to save the project in the next few days, aided by Mayor Sly James, and maybe the BNIM architectural firm will get to build its innovative, environmentally ambitious headquarters at the site. That’s certainly our hope.
Maybe the referendum mounted against the tax breaks will fall short of the signatures needed to get on the 2016 ballot.
Or maybe the deal unfortunately will collapse, especially if the public election is scheduled or a court battle erupts.
But here’s an over-arching truth to take away from this contretemps.
Everyone involved in the taxpayer subsidy games needs to have learned valuable lessons. That goes for James and the City Council, incentive oversight agencies, as well as developers, their lawyers and the representatives of taxing jurisdictions such as school districts, counties and library systems.
Public assistance should be given to private projects that deserve them — and ratcheted back or denied when that’s not the case.
The primary public policy points are three-fold as future tax breaks are debated around the city.
▪ Each deal should be evaluated on its own; a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. Developers shouldn’t expect to get what the last one got, especially as parts of the city are more fully revived.
▪ Pros and cons of these projects need to be fully and openly discussed, with plenty of debate time allowed for supporters and opponents in public hearings. This is where James and, especially, the nine new council members can carve out a more focused role for themselves.
▪ The groups that make recommendations or final decisions on public subsidies — led by the Tax Increment Financing Commission — need to do a better job of limiting the amount of incentives provided to the revenues needed to allow a project to take place.
This is where the other taxing jurisdictions have the most to gain — and lose. We have supported their desires in the past to be more involved in these discussions, because their services are affected by City Council decisions to divert future revenues. However, in the Helzberg TIF deal, it is disappointing that Kansas City Public Schools officials have been involved in undermining a deal their representatives initially supported.
James this week correctly noted that the city must “right-size incentives” while promoting growth. And he pointedly said that using petitions and public votes to challenge economic development projects could have a chilling effect on the city’s momentum.
Scars will be left by the battle over the Helzberg TIF. They will heal more quickly if everyone involved more professionally handles future projects that request tax breaks.