Need incentives policy

Getting the city’s new downtown development incentives policy on paper and ready for the Wichita City Council was challenging enough, creating confusion about when the city would be willing to spend more public dollars downtown and how much the public will be privy to new projects’ financials. But the policy has the outlines right.

It would equip private developers with information and criteria, yet let them lead, with public investment focused on infrastructure such as parks and parking. Developers or key partners would need to provide at least 10 percent equity, pay an $8,500 application fee per project, and as a private- -public capital investment ratio of 2-to-1.

The idea is to ensure both that developers know what’s expected of them and that the city knows developers are serious and trustworthy.

If, as the policy suggests, the city plans to try to skirt the state’s openrecords law by letting some parties use a third-party financial analyst, that’s a really bad idea.

Citizens understand that business deals involve sensitive information. There’s got to be a way to accommodate both the deal making and the public’s need for open government. The city needs to uphold the spirit as well as the letter of open-records law.

City officials should state up front that they will be as transparent with financial and other information as is possible, as they commit to be diligent in scrutinizing potential projects and partners in an attempt to avoid any nasty surprises that would put taxpayers at risk.

The real measure of the policy will come after today’s expected council approval, with the policy’s degree of perceived difficulty and amount of use.

Developers, city officials and citizens alike will need to find it as “clear, predictable and transparent” as called for by the Project Downtown master plan, so it “maximizes public investment and enhances market-driven development.”

As Wichita entrepreneur Jack DeBoer, who owns the Hotel at Old Town and the rebranded Hotel at WaterWalk, recently told The Eagle: “Don’t put a lot of roadblocks in the way for developers. We’re an unusual breed, and you need to not do anything stupid, but put your arm around these guys. Nothing gets done unless developers are willing to risk their time and money.”

If the policy flops, developers will have another reason not to do their business downtown and citizens will have something else to hold against City Hall.

If the policy succeeds, it will be the green light that the core needs, signaling the transformation not only of eight city-owned “catalyst” sites but of the rest of downtown.

— For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman