Delano project a catalyst in need of stronger support

A 2016 illustration of an 180-unit apartment building planned for Sycamore Street between 1st Street and Douglas.
A 2016 illustration of an 180-unit apartment building planned for Sycamore Street between 1st Street and Douglas.

The 180-apartment, 90-hotel room project that would connect Exploration Place and the new Advanced Learning Library with the Delano district is being billed as a key piece of Delano’s redevelopment.

So why has the City Council barely approved the project twice?

The proposal has moved forward on two 4-3 votes by the City Council. Mayor Jeff Longwell joined the opposition on the most recent vote.

It’s not the enthusiasm or level of support expected for a development of more than $40 million that not only continues to change the landscape west of the Arkansas River, but is an important first step in a new era for Delano.

The project itself is impressive. In about three years, 7.2 acres south and southeast of the new library – divided by Sycamore Street – will have new apartments and a three-star hotel.

More important for Wichitans who don’t take up residence there, public greenway areas will connect Delano with the library to the north and McLean Boulevard to the east.

The project, city leaders say, is a necessary early step toward renovating the entire Delano area, including a new baseball stadium to replace 83-year-old Lawrence-Dumont. Longwell is confident the city can lure a minor-league franchise that’s affiliated with a major-league club, which the state has said is necessary to receive STAR bonds. Those bonds pay for the project and are paid back through a Delano taxing district.

The apartment-hotel project shows potential ballpark bond buyers that Delano redevelopment is gaining momentum and generating revenue.

So why has the project twice scraped by with 4 of 7 votes?

A year ago, when Kansas City-based EPC Real Estate Group was chosen over three other developers, council members Bryan Frye and Pete Meitzner voted against the measure, saying the land was too desirable to rush into approving a project. Jeff Blubaugh, also a no, wondered whether there were too many hotel rooms in the downtown area.

But EPC won the bid on a 4-3 vote and began negotiations with the city on subsidies. EPC asked the city for industrial revenue bonds so the developer wouldn’t pay sales tax on construction materials, and for a tax increment financing district to pay for parking and greenway work.

Since then, the city negotiated down EPC’s request for $13.5 million in subsidies to $12 million, plus expanded the Delano TIF district to include the project.

On Tuesday, the Council voted to approve a Community Improvement District for the project and the $12 million in subsidies. Again, it was 4-3, but this time Meitzner was for it and Longwell was against. Frye and Blubaugh voted no again.

Longwell didn’t change his mind on the project, just the price tag. “Certainly like the project,” he said. “Wish it didn’t take $12 million to get this project.”

Sure, Longwell could read the rest of the Council and know that his dissent wouldn’t be the deciding vote. His vote could also offer political cover later if questions are raised about the amount of the city’s subsidy.

But Delano redevelopment and a new ballpark are Longwell’s vision. He’s still risking political clout with such large aspirations. It’s not as if Wichitans were clamoring for a new stadium and baseball affiliated with the majors before Longwell went public with his idea in the summer of 2016.

Longwell’s big thinking on Delano should be commended. Of major projects around the city, Delano is a big grab, the one hardest to visualize years from now.

But the narrow victories on Delano Catalyst votes show a council divided in its support of what’s termed an important face for the entire district. And it doesn’t seem like cause to celebrate when the city’s top elected official can’t cast his vote in favor of the deal.

Wichitans can rightly wonder if the council’s heart is in Delano redevelopment and if the price tag is too high. Perhaps the better move would have been to send negotiators back to the table.