What was expected to be the routine approval of a downtown apartment development deal turned into a confrontation between Wichita City Council members and the anti-tax group Americans for Prosperity on Tuesday.
Council members unanimously approved a $2.5 million tax increment financing package for the River Vista apartment project, a 154-unit complex planned at First and McLean by a group headed by Bradley Fair developer George Laham. Other partners are Old Town developer Dave Burk, Key Construction president Dave Wells and theater chain operator Bill Warren.
Prompted by criticism of the deal from blogger Bob Weeks, a longtime opponent of public incentives for private partnerships, council members launched the most comprehensive in-meeting rebuttal to date of AFP’s opposition to public-private business deals.
The council and AFP have squared off before. The group has criticized the awarding of projects to council campaign contributors as city cronyism, while council members have accused AFP of selective hypocrisy on those deals, ignoring state Sen. Michael O’Donnell’s support of campaign contributor Rodney Steven in the debate over taxing exercise equipment during the 2013 Kansas legislative session.
Tuesday, Mayor Carl Brewer, along with council members Pete Meitzner, James Clendenin and Jeff Longwell, took on Weeks after the blogger said City Hall cronyism was driving businesses from Wichita. Brewer accused Weeks of selectively attacking city projects and developers.
“The cronyism evident in these deals ... drives people away from Wichita,” Weeks asserted, brandishing Bureau of Labor Statistics figures he said illustrates Wichita’s slow economic growth.
“Do you have the numbers? Can you cite the businesses that have been driven away?” Brewer asked.
Weeks cited Wichita developer Steve Clark, the losing bidder in the west bank apartment bidding process.
Brewer wanted more.
“You are making the statement and you’re showing the facts ...” Brewer said. “Show me the proof.”
“We can’t see those businesses,” Weeks protested.
“It’s hypothetically your opinion,” the mayor shot back.
“It’s not hypothetically my opinion. It is my opinion,” Weeks responded.
Meitzner named four businesses — PetSmart, Sears Outlet, Mercedes Benz and Kia — that have invested in Wichita in recent months.
“We’ve had a lot of debate, but these are factual events from the last two weeks,” the vice mayor said. “Personally, I”m encouraged by the national firms looking at Wichita.”
Longwell asked Weeks what Clark was offering for the city land at First and McLean in his proposal, called The Riv. Clark, according to city documents, asked for the city land for free.
“I’m not sure why you’re advocating for Steve Clark,” Longwell said. “I’m not sure how you call that cronyism.”
The city is selling the land for the apartments, appraised at $600,000, to developers for $100,000, according to city documents. City officials say the land – currently off the tax rolls as city property – would be valued at $14.3 million for tax purposes when the apartment project is complete.
After the discussion, AFP’s Susan Estes — during debate over another incentive package — told the council that she and Weeks were not advocating for Clark.
Brewer told Weeks that the council’s focus will remain on creating jobs “whether you like it or not.”
Brewer brought up the acquisition of the Kansas Coliseum by Johnny Stevens, Clark’s frequent partner in development and in opposition to public incentives for private projects. Stevens bought the coliseum for $1 million, well under the property’s $20 million value, the mayor said.
“Our job is to find ways to help people create jobs,” the mayor said. “The only people who accuse us of cronyism are a small group, including you.
“If you want to talk about cronyism, I’d talk about the Coliseum,” Brewer went on. “And other things I’ve never heard you ask about. I’d take something for a million dollars that’s worth $20 million.
“You are very selective in what you ask about,” the mayor said to Weeks. “Show me the facts ... You are standing inside four walls and looking at whatever someone tells you.”
Weeks offered little in terms of rebuttal during the meeting, primarily listening.
However, in a text message after the meeting, Estes said the faceoff is emblematic of a “disconnect” between the council and business.
“The mayor and council members who spoke today seem to be unaware of the businesses who are concerned about the current environment,” she wrote.