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$3 billion price tag for Wichita projects stuns council

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, May 6, 2014, at 8:48 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 15, 2014, at 6:15 p.m.

Photos

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Would you support a city sales tax increase of one quarter of a cent if the revenue went toward job creation?


Wichita’s tab

Jobs – $90 million

Quality of life – $680 million

• New convention and performing arts space: $450 million to $600 million

• Complete ballpark renovation: $49 million

• Watson Park: $3.3 million

• Dunbar Theater: $4.9 million

• Downtown library: $30 million

Transit – $2.9 million to $14.8 million

Homelessness – $546,000 to $10 million

Source: City of Wichita White Papers

The tab for jobs, quality-of-life improvements, transit and helping the homeless was so large on Tuesday that several Wichita City Council members slumped in their seats.

And the bills are still rolling in.

If you want more high-paying jobs, convention and performing arts space, a better bus system and a room for every homeless person in Wichita, the price for that ends up just north of $800 million, City Manager Robert Layton and staff members said in the first four of eight reports on key issues before the city.

And none of that takes into account the nine-figure cost of a new water source, to be rolled out next week.

Factor in deferred maintenance on the city’s sewer and water systems, estimated at $2.1 billion by Mayor Carl Brewer a year ago, and Wichita needs almost $3 billion worth of work – and that’s without a new water source.

“You can write a check for this,” Layton observed wryly from the lectern as council members went mute, sagging in their seats.

Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition officials made their pitch for a $90 million economic development war chest, to be compiled over five years – presumably from a quarter-cent of a prospective 1-cent sales tax increase that the council may take to the voters this fall.

And Wichita Transit could save itself with a tenth of that cent, raising $7 million a year to stabilize funding and even expand some services around the region.

The other two projects Layton discussed on Tuesday – quality-of-life issues and providing help to the homeless – are potentially so large that they couldn’t be accomplished without private investment, he said.

Jobs

Development coalition chairman Gary Schmitt of Intrust Bank told council members that Wichita has to decide whether it wants to compete for the jobs it has and the jobs it might land.

Wichita has lost a third of its aviation workforce since 2008 and 31,000 jobs in total.

“We’ve got a lot of the pieces of the puzzle already, especially our skilled workforce,” said Schmitt.

The city needs a closing fund, he said, to use for incentives to compete with other Kansas cities and surrounding states.

And in an apparent hat tip to Americans for Prosperity officials, who sat in the back of the room, Schmitt acknowledged the context of those incentives.

“The ‘I’ word, the one word you don’t say out loud: incentives,” he said. “Nobody likes to pay incentives.”

That’s what the $90 million fund would help cover: incentives, relocation money, land discounts, buildings and equipment. Schmitt said the jobs drive will focus on aviation while targeting diversified industries that can utilize the workforce already in place in Wichita.

There have already been good opportunities to land new business – “the grand slams of economic development,” Schmitt said. But Wichita has lacked a dedicated megasite for those companies that want to move quickly and has been outbid by competing cities and states.

“We as a community cannot continue doing the same thing we’ve done for the last 20 years,” Schmitt said. “If we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing, we’ll get the same results.”

Transit

Wichita Transit needs an immediate $2.9 million annual infusion to maintain its current level of service, Layton told the council.

If the council wants to expand service, it could run the annual tab as high as $12 million a year, not counting capital expenses.

That news rendered council members speechless.

Except Janet Miller, who asked staff members to come back in a week or two with a plan to spend $7 million of potential sales tax revenue, a tenth of a cent that potentially could stabilize the financially-embattled system and provide for short-term enhancements, such as later hours of service.

And then Miller – the transit system’s most outspoken proponent on the council – made her pitch for help.

“We are at a watershed moment in time with our transit system. There won’t be $7 million to $10 million in our operational budget,” she said. “Are we going to fund this like the public service it is?

“No transit system in the world breaks even. Transit can play a really important part in our economic prosperity in the community,” she said.

“A lot of people think of transit as a social service agency, but it has a lot of connection to the economic efforts in this community.”

Quality of life and homelessness

The biggest chunk of the tab presented Tuesday was the potential cost of new city convention and performing arts space: $450 million to $600 million.

But that wasn’t the only big price tag. Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, one of the five oldest professional baseball stadiums in America, Watson Park and the Dunbar Theater all need seven or eight figures’ worth of work.

And the report hinted at shoving the new $30 million downtown library further into the distance.

Those projects, Layton said, would almost certainly require private dollars to help the city complete them – although all of them could be phased in over several years.

And although Wichita Police Homeless Outreach teams have housed 128 people and reunited about six dozen more in their first year, the cost of providing a roof for each of the city’s homeless strays into the seven figures as well.

Layton characterized his staff’s work and its results.

“A lot of meetings and a lot of money,” he said ruefully.

Reach Bill Wilson at 316-268-6290 or bwilson@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @bwilsoneagle.

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