What started as a glowing assessment of downtown Wichita’s redevelopment success turned into a public rebuke from the bench during the Wichita City Council meeting Tuesday.
After hearing from Wichita Downtown Development Corp. and city officials that private investment in downtown is outstripping public investment by almost 9 to 1, new council member Paul Gray went on the offensive.
Gray questioned what he called “skewed” numbers presented by WDDC president Jeff Fluhr and Scott Knebel, the city’s downtown development manager: $84.1 million in private downtown investment and $10.7 million in public investment.
Gray spent several minutes voicing doubt about the accuracy of those numbers, specifically that public incentive money — tax increment financing, community improvement district, and federal and state historic tax credit money — was included in the $84.1 million presented to the council as private investment.
He called that “deceitful, not forthcoming with our public investment.” Downtown officials offered no estimates to the council of how much in public incentives is included in the $84.1 million figure.
“If you truly want a greater level of community buy-in, then you get it by being as forthcoming as you can with the financial analysis of these projects and truly demonstrating what we as a community are putting in as financing,” Gray said.
Even those figures, he said, may not persuade the community’s vocal opponents of public incentives for private development.
“But you get more trust and buy-in from the public,” Gray said.
Knebel acknowledged to the council that public incentives are included but not identified in the $84.1 million in private investment cited in the WDDC report. He said the downtown group will produce a report in May “with a greater level of analysis regarding our use of development incentives for those projects.”
That seemed to placate Gray.
“We are skewing our numbers to demonstrate our successes,” he said. “I think our successes speak for themselves.
“I don’t think anyone really knows about how much money is invested in Old Town,” Gray said. “But we love Old Town, and it’s a good thing for our community. I think you will have better success and buy-in with the community if you demonstrate more accurately what our community investment is in these projects.”
Gray’s critique didn’t seem to faze other council members, including Pete Meitzner, who laughingly referred to “following Debbie Downer there” after the issue was raised.
“When people come to the city of Wichita, this entire city is measured by what they see downtown,” Mayor Carl Brewer said. “Now we have people moving in, young people attending school or starting careers living downtown and spending time downtown.
“And maybe others getting up to Pete Meitzner’s age moving in from the ’burbs. More activities and more things to do. Everything is coming along, and it’s coming along in a timely manner. We wanted more feet on concrete, and you have certainly done that.”
The numbers flap overshadowed a largely glowing report delivered by Fluhr and Knebel, touting another $112 million in active or “ready to start” development and another $100 million in possible projects.
The presentation was highlighted by the purchase of Union Station by Gary Oborny’s Occidental Management, which was announced Friday.
“This city will not be the same in two years because of the development you are fostering that the private sector is investing in,” Fluhr said.
David Dixon, the lead project consultant on the downtown master plan from Goody Clancy in Boston, called Wichita one of his favorite cities to work in.
“It’s been a great place to work more than anything else because of the obvious commitment …,” he said. “The reason Wichita is making such visible progress is because the community has really worked together. I am truly impressed, not just by the work being done but how good the work is.”