The local Americans for Prosperity group deserves credit for finding enough signatures to force a public vote on whether the planned Ambassador Hotel should get $2.25 million in bed-tax proceeds. But it doesn’t deserve to win at the polls.
For one thing, Wichita voters already had their say last spring about whether public incentives should be used to spur downtown development: They re-elected Mayor Carl Brewer and City Council member Jeff Longwell and elected two new council members, Pete Meitzner and James Clendenin, who similarly support the downtown revitalization mapped out in the Project Downtown plan. With the petition drive, the local Americans for Prosperity group has won a do-over — one that even sticks the Ambassador Hotel partners with the $50,000 bill to hold the election and will require them to campaign in defense of the public financing.
For another thing, downtown Wichita already has had a chance to redevelop itself according to the activists’ ideology. The result has been more emptying out by businesses amid slow, haphazard development over several decades. The old Union National Bank building, for example, has been empty for 12 years. Now that it’s the subject of a public-private partnership that will give downtown Wichita a needed 117-room boutique hotel and parking garage while paying tribute to the history that was made on the site — the Dockum lunch-counter sit-in of 1958 — the opponents are getting in its way and trying to change the rules.
What a regrettable message that sends to potential developers: Welcome to downtown Wichita, where an attempt to access the economic development tools available to you may be thwarted by a protest petition and a referendum to be billed to you.
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Plus, the public incentive in question — the only one legally subject to a protest petition, because it involved a charter ordinance — isn’t a tax that burdens local citizens. It’s something to be paid by those staying at the hotel over a 15-year period.
The City Council may consider next week whether to back down on the bed-tax incentive or schedule a citywide vote.
Whatever the council does, it will be a shame if Project Downtown’s impressive momentum is slowed by this challenge.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman