Eagle editorial: Fix bidding mistakes

The River Vista apartment development promises to be a landmark addition to the river corridor and well worth the taxpayer investment. But Wichita City Manager Robert Layton and his bosses on the City Council need to ensure that the mistakes of the bidding process for the First and McLean site are not repeated on future projects.

As Mayor Carl Brewer told The Eagle, “If we’re going to do these things, we must have a fair and equitable process for everybody.”

Last month the Wichita City Council voted 4-2 to advance the $24 million River Vista project – led by Bradley Fair developer George Laham and including Key Construction’s Dave Wells, Old Town developer Dave Burk and theater owner Bill Warren.

An Eagle analysis of internal city documents didn’t confirm the claims by rival developer Steve Clark that the city had reneged on a “mutually agreed development plan” in which he and his partners were the “preferred developers” and a request-for-proposals process would be “a mere formality.”

Indeed, the necessity of a bidding process for the site was mentioned repeatedly in e-mails and other paperwork over a two-year span. If Clark and his team believed otherwise, it was a failure of informal communication rather than documentation.

But it’s troubling that city staff arbitrarily decided three years ago to allow only a three-week window for bidding on downtown development proposals, and that Layton and his staff didn’t recognize the problem until it was pointed out by council members in March. Though citizens are eager to see results from downtown redevelopment, a big-dollar project such as the First and McLean site demanded more time than the city staff originally wanted to give it. A 30- to 60-day deadline for RFPs would have been customary.

In the end, the city did extend the RFP deadline by a month. But that was only after the Laham group had made its first formal pitch to the city on March 23, which was nearly two years after Clark’s preliminary presentation to the city.

That hardly seemed fair, especially when so many details of Clark’s plan were developed and well-known at City Hall. The city’s extension of the deadline from April 6 to May 6 had the appearance (accurate or not) of a last-minute favor done for a development group with close ties to the mayor and other council members.

Both proposals anticipated seeking substantial tax-increment financing and state STAR (sales tax and revenue) bond incentives to help cover infrastructure and some project costs. Even if it had been handled with more care and regard for appearances, the First and McLean project still would be a ready target for critics of public-private partnerships.

Now, Brewer said he wants to appoint a committee to fine-tune the city’s bidding process. That seems a smart step. Citizens need to be able to trust that the downtown plan is being implemented fairly and without favoritism. The First and McLean deal has given them cause to wonder.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman