Council shifts incentive policy

Wichita officials hope their new downtown incentive policy signals a philosophical shift from "build it and they will come to" to "build it as they come."

What that means, essentially, is that the city hopes the incentive policy City Council members approved Tuesday provides a predictable framework for developers to navigate when they want taxpayer assets to help make their business plans work.

District 4 council member Michael O'Donnell was alone opposing the new policy.

He said it's too "open-ended" and carries too much risk to public funds.

"We're risking the public's time and money on these projects," he said.

But his six colleagues expressed support.

The downtown incentive policy steers developers seeking City Hall's help to preliminary meetings with city officials and members of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp.

Businesspeople have to submit plans and other documents to the city to show their project is viable but has a real need for public assistance.

Those requests will be vetted by city officials and private businesspeople and scored on how well they fit with the city's downtown development goals and how strong the business plans are.

The policy marks a change in the city's attitude toward public investment in developers' projects downtown.

Incentives such as tax increment financing will now have to be tied to public improvements, such as parks and shared parking garages. Previously, tax dollars could be used to acquire land for private developments.

While the policy is in some ways more restrictive, it also addressed developers' requests.

For example, developers worry about their personal financial information becoming public during the city's vetting process.

So the city opted to allow a third-party firm to perform financial analysis that will result in a summary report to City Council members that does not show specifics but does disclose any significant findings.

Developers will have to pay an $8,500 development fee that Allen Bell, the city's director of urban development, said is based on average costs the city incurs when reviewing proposals for city incentives.

Additionally, the developers will have to pay for the third-party analysis of financial information and Wichita State University's cost-benefit analysis, which determines whether the incentives ultimately benefit the city financially.

Several people criticized the city's efforts to revitalize downtown and the new policy that guides development projects that involve public support.

"The only prudent public investment is no public investment in the private sector," said Clinton Coen, who ran for the District 3 seat in this spring's election but was eliminated in the primary.

Downtown developer David Burk, WDDC president Jeff Fluhr and several council members voiced strong support for the policy and the city's efforts to revitalize downtown.

Council member Janet Miller said that Wichita's efforts have paid off, including the investments made as result of a downtown plan in 1989 and more recent projects.

"There is lots happening downtown now," she said.