October 7, 2011

Group kicks off petition drive to force public vote on subsidy for downtown Wichita hotel

Americans for Prosperity kicked off a petition drive Friday afternoon, trying to force a public vote on a $2.25 million city tax subsidy for a downtown hotel project.

That $2.25 million, from city transient guest tax revenues generated by the proposed hotel, is about 10 percent of the project cost of a proposed 117-room Ambassador boutique hotel at the corner of Douglas and Broadway.

"It's going well," said AFP-Kansas director Derrick Sontag. "It's been pretty steady with folks."

The cookout, held just west of Towne East Square, featured Wichita City Council Member Michael O'Donnell and Sedgwick County Commissioner Richard Ranzau. Both signed the petition.

The Ambassador is the first City Council-approved public-private partnership downtown under Project Downtown, the new master redevelopment plan.

If the petition drive can garner a little more than 2,500 signatures over the next 60 days, AFP and its supporters can force a public vote on the guest tax subsidy.

That election, estimated to cost about $50,000, would be financed by the hotel developers' company, Douglas Place LLC.

"I'm not surprised" that the petition drive went forward, lead Ambassador developer Paul Coury said Friday. "I'm disappointed, but they have the right to do it."

The guest tax subsidy can be challenged by protest petition because the City Council will have to redirect the tax revenue from its normal use, which is promoting and developing tourism.

Sontag said Friday that his group will hand the petition drive off to a "collection of other grass-roots groups in Wichita."

It is not clear which groups, if any, will sponsor the petition drive.

But if the petition drive succeeds in forcing a vote, both the petition organizers and the hotel developers will have to file campaign finance reports showing how much money was spent and who contributed money to the campaigns, said Carol Williams of the state governmental ethics commission.

AFP's Sontag backed away from direct opposition of the Ambassador project, which is spearheaded by developers Coury, Dave Burk and Dave Wells, saying the group objects to the public incentives involved in the plan, not the hotel itself.

"I think that the message today and for the next 60 days is that signing the petition does not declare whether you support the project," he said.

Ranzau said his opposition to using "the tax system" to help finance private development brought him to the cookout.

"The system's for streets and roads, police and fire, not things like this," Ranzau said. "We're picking winners and losers here."

O'Donnell called the cookout an example of the "public input" city officials have sought throughout the downtown revitalization process.

"What's better than having a petition drive to contest something that affects our tax dollars, tax revenue, the school district because this project withholds funds from that," he asked.

Ranzau said politicians "underestimate the anger that's out here."

"People are struggling," he said. "And many of them have their own small businesses. And they don't get these kinds of benefits."

There was anger among members of the public who came out to sign the petition and pick up petitions to circulate.

"I'm here protesting what the city's doing downtown," said Wichitan Gale Calkins, "taking money out of private industry and using it to foot somebody else's business."

Calkins criticized the City Council's public-private partnership track record, including the WaterWalk development.

"We need streets redone, roads redone. And here they are taking money from somebody else and they don't even have a vote on it. They just do what they please," he said.

Wichita Bob Moore criticized the council and developers.

"I don't think the developer's been very clear on what they intend to do with this building, and that includes the City Council," he said.

"My friends are very, very upset at government in general, including local government, and they say they've turned off their hearing aids."

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