A long-range plan for Wichita's downtown failed to get the support of two Sedgwick County commissioners, who said they weren't against growing the area but were concerned about the use of public funds and issues of eminent domain.
Commissioners spent about two hours Wednesday discussing the plan, getting sidetracked at times on peripheral talks that became heated. Commissioners Tim Norton, Jim Skelton and Dave Unruh voted to support the downtown plan; commissioners Karl Peterjohn and Richard Ranzau voted against it.
"I do not oppose downtown development," Ranzau told his colleagues and those who spoke in favor of the plan. "I am concerned about how we get there."
Ranzau and Peterjohn wanted assurances that eminent domain would not be used as part of the plan and that approval would not bind the county to financial support. Under eminent domain, local governments can take land to create jobs, clean up blighted areas and expand the tax base.
The discussion got messy at times as commissioners offered substitute motions and amendments.
Dubbed Project Downtown: The Master Plan for Wichita, the plan already has been adopted by the Wichita City Council and given a thumbs-up by the Wichita-Sedgwick County Metropolitan Area Planning Commission. Those bodies voted unanimously to make it the guiding tool of downtown development.
The $600 million plan was drafted by Boston firm Goody Clancy after input from the public. It calls for new restaurants, shops, lofts and offices to be built downtown during the next 20 years. According to the consultants, about $500 million could come from private business, with local investing about $100 million.
A few people spoke against the plan at Wednesday's meeting, saying the county needs to focus on the county, not downtown Wichita. They also said that some businesses should not benefit from special financing not available to other businesses. The playing field, they said, should be fair for everyone.
Those speakers included former Commissioner Kelly Parks, who urged board members to receive and file the plan, not endorse it.
"This is a private development concern and a city of Wichita concern," Parks said.
Wichita resident Bob Weeks said the plan is "not market-driven" but government-driven. He said for downtown to succeed, private business must invest first and foremost.
Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., known as the WDDC, spoke in favor of the plan "as a guiding principle in the days ahead."
Talk got off track during the meeting about whether the WDDC should be more transparent.
The group is a key proponent of the downtown master plan. When a speaker in the audience challenged the group to be more open with the public, its former chairman, Larry Weber, said the District Attorney's Office ruled that the group doesn't fall under the Kansas Open Records Act. Weber said the group wasn't obligated to respond to requests for information such as salaries and "all that crap."
But Ranzau noted that the group gets much of its money from public sources such as the city and county and urged it to follow the "spirit" of the open records law, if not the letter of the law.
At that point, Weber said he would be happy to sit down with Ranzau and tell him how much WDDC president Jeff Fluhr earns in his job. Ranzau said he didn't want the information; he said the public wants it. Weber, property manager for the Garvey Center, still serves on the WDDC board.
In response to criticism about public funding of downtown, Weber ran down a list of private investments in the area by businesses not asking for any funding from the city or county.
Norton said endorsing the plan was an important step for the county because "if you don't know where you're going, you might just get there."
He, Skelton and Unruh said they didn't think the board needed in writing that eminent domain or county money wouldn't be required for the plan to succeed.
"With all respect to all the comments being made, I won't be supportive of the substitute motion," Unruh said. "I think it's clear this commission does not support investing county funds in downtown development at this time."
He also said the county has final authority over tax-increment financing districts. TIF districts divert increases in property taxes to help pay for some development costs.