Wichita’s ballpark is a go — but the backroom deals need to stop

Now that Wichita city leaders have voted to approve a riverfront ballpark development — despite lingering questions about the project’s investors, design and financial prospects — they want to move forward with haste.

But it’s important to pause and make one thing clear:

Their credibility took a hit — and rightfully so.

More than 30 members of the public addressed the council Tuesday night, many of them furious about the backroom negotiations and “just trust us” approach that Mayor Jeff Longwell and others have touted as necessary.

Wondering why you didn’t know about the private development agreement earlier?

Wondering why the city didn’t notify the public that it planned to sell public land?

Wondering why the rush and secrecy?

That’s just the way business is done, Longwell says.

But that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The city’s own staff members acknowledged Tuesday that they didn’t follow established guidelines for the sale of city property.

Scot Rigby, assistant city manager, said “the catalytic nature of this project” and the quest to attract a Minor League Baseball team meant the city ignored procedures outlined in a 2014 document that governs the sale of city-owned land. That document calls for soliciting offers through a time-tested request-for-proposals process.

“We did go around, I guess you could say, the development policy that we had,” Rigby told the council. “But in order to do a catalytic development, this is what had to occur.”

City Manager Robert Layton further noted that city leaders should have made clear months ago that private development was a linchpin for the ballpark deal, and that public land was part of the negotiations.

“I think we all knew it. We were working on it for several months,” Layton said. “But it’s apparent from the community that it’s an issue of trust and that we maybe didn’t live up to expectations in that regard.”

Supporters of the ballpark project may claim this is another battle of visionaries vs. naysayers, that those who question the city’s process just don’t want Wichita to grow and thrive.

That’s clearly not the case.

The crowd of citizens at Tuesday evening’s council meeting included men and women, young professionals and retirees, conservatives and progressives. Most of them, including several who said they support the new ballpark, voiced concerns about transparency and said they hope city leaders will be more upfront in the future.

Wichita landed a Triple-A baseball team, and that fact should be celebrated. The next year will mean fast-track development on the patch of dirt that once was Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and huge changes to Wichita’s Delano neighborhood.

Moving forward, the public must continue to press leaders about numerous issues that remain unresolved. Among them: the exact boundaries of the land being sold, the names of the ballpark developers, commitments to the National Baseball Congress, and the protection of public sight lines and access to the riverfront.

Now that this deal is done, let the smoke out of the back room. And pledge not to hide there again.