A public hearing has been set for March 1 on a proposed community improvement district that would finance a third of $53 million in planned improvements to an east Wichita shopping center.
Wichita City Council members voted 5-1, with Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell opposed, to approve the hearing for TMC Eastgate LLC, owners of the Eastgate Center at the southeast corner of Kellogg and Rock Road.
The Eastgate owners — Christian Ablah, Tom Boyd and Mike Boyd — are planning a $53.4 million renovation of the center they bought 15 months ago.
The Eastgate CID would generate a maximum of $18.5 million from an additional 1 percent sales tax that will be collected by the center's tenants over 22 years if the CID is approved.
Longwell did not elaborate on his opposition to the public hearing.
However, one audience member, Craig Gabel, owner of Mike's Steak House, voiced a variety of arguments against the CID proposal.
Gabel said TMC Eastgate "cannot get the tenants to generate the income they need to fix the property."
He claimed that the group has been "collecting huge rents, the highest rents in the city for years." The Ablah-Boyds group purchased the center in late 2009.
And Gabel leveled a blast against Ablah.
"This is the second one of these in a number of months that Christian Ablah has run through," Gabel said. "Are we going to approve these for everything he owns in the community? If so, we're going to have a huge percentage of the town that are going to be covered under this CID program."
Gabel said repeatedly that CID districts are intended for blighted areas, which is the intended purpose of tax increment financing districts. Instead, the city requires only a statement of public purpose from CID applicants.
Korb Maxwell, a Kansas City attorney representing Ablah and the Boyds, said the Eastgate improvements will help fill the center, which had a 20 percent vacancy rate 15 months ago when his clients acquired it.
They plan a full facade renovation, resurfacing of the center's parking lot, and tenant improvements, Maxwell said.
Today, vacancies are at around 10 percent, Maxwell said, and the group is in talks with several national retailers to fill the remaining vacancies.
Maxwell declined to identify the retail prospects in response to a question from council member Roger Smith.
Council member Sue Schlapp reminded the incentive opponents in the audience that Tuesday's action only establishes a public hearing on the CID. A vote up or down will come after the hearing this spring.
Her statement came after council member Janet Miller rebuked those opponents for frequently "getting facts wrong."
"To those of you who come forward, we hear you, we listen and we understand...," said Schlapp, who is leaving the council this spring.
"Somehow, we're all slated as not listening, not knowing, not hearing, and I guess I'm just a little taken aback. I spend a lot of time trying to understand the issues...."
"I think I'm still relevant. And I think that March 1 will bring more relevancy to the discussion."