Carrie Rengers

Ahead of baseball vote, Longwell says: ‘If we’re not growing, we’re moving backwards’

More than three years of negotiations — punctuated by weeks of public outcry over transparency — come down to a Tuesday City Council vote on a development agreement for the city’s new ballpark. It’s an agreement that could make or break the city’s deal to bring the Baby Cakes team from New Orleans.

As much as the deal itself, this is Mayor Jeff Longwell’s moment — whether he wants it to be or not.

“I really don’t want it to be about me,” he said.

“Let me say this again clearly: I really am not trying to build a legacy for me. I want to build something that this city can be proud of. That future generations will say, ‘You know what? This is cool. I want to stay here.’ ”

Not only the vote but the citizen commentary that goes with it — the council’s meeting time has been moved to 6 p.m. to accommodate the public — will be a referendum on Longwell’s dream of a ballpark to be a catalyst for development along the riverbank in the city’s core.

The vote was to have been two weeks ago but was postponed after The Eagle reported the deal included the city selling some land for $1 an acre to the baseball team’s investors to develop.

“Even with all of the negative stories that have come out, I don’t believe that there are so many people against it,” Longwell said. “As much as we’ve seen public outcry, we’ve seen support.”

He said some of the negativity is from people who simply don’t like him.

“There’s always going to be haters, right?”

Longwell said that “everything we do in this town unfortunately seems to be difficult.”

“Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. You’re fighting everybody when you try and take bold steps.”

He said they’re necessary steps.

“We have to grow. If we’re not growing, we’re moving backwards.”

Longwell said he knows he and others at the city have to shoulder some blame.

“Certainly, we can armchair quarterback all day long.”

The “city could have done a better job of communications,” he said.

Longwell said there were limitations on what the city could share, but added, “we could have said we’re still in negotiations on elements.”

He had to walk back comments he made about Minor League Baseball preventing the city from talking. He said officials could have told the public sooner about the development deal to help bring the Baby Cakes.

There also are lots of unanswered questions, including how many acres the city may sell the team, who is part of the development group that will develop those acres and what happens if that deal falls apart.

Longwell has said the team won’t come if the development deal falls through.

Still, he doesn’t have regrets for pursuing a ballpark.

“It always comes back to I want to build a city that truly is a city that’s growing,” he said.

“It was an opportunity to look at a quality-of-life feature that could also bring development that could potentially bring the kind of revenue we need to grow our city without taxing our citizens more.”

Longwell won’t guarantee that property taxes won’t rise or that the city won’t move funds from elsewhere if the baseball development ends up needing them.

In addition to lots of unexpected, hastily called meetings over baseball that have kept him busy, Longwell has filed to run for re-election this year. Then there’s the daily business of being the mayor of a city of about 400,000 people.

“Everything keeps me up at night. Seriously. There’s a thousand things that keep me up at night.”

Longwell said he got into politics for a reason, though.

“I’ve said from day one, we need to figure out how we can improve the quality of life in Wichita, and we’re not done yet.”

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Carrie Rengers has been a reporter for almost three decades, including 16 years at The Wichita Eagle. Her Have You Heard? column of business scoops runs five days a week in The Eagle. If you have a tip, please e-mail or tweet her or call 316-268-6340.
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