Editorials

Wichita airport hotel deal looks like another rush job by city

A new hotel at Eisenhower Airport may boost development near a crucial gateway to Wichita. It could make economic and political sense.

Why, then, has the city been so sneaky about a proposed agreement that would lease six acres of prime land to a developer for the next 50 years?

The Wichita City Council on Tuesday was expected to sign a lease deal with a company called Wichita Eisenhower Hotel LLC without a public airing. The development, worth at least $7 million, is proposed for land north of the existing airport Hampton Inn.

Items like this 77-page lease agreement don’t belong on the council’s consent agenda, where routine business items usually are approved without discussion and with a single vote.

Nor should major items go to a vote if, as in this case, key elements are being rewritten — at least in part because of questions raised by The Eagle — and a final version of the proposed agreement isn’t available to council members until hours before the vote.

On Tuesday, the City Council wisely decided to postpone the vote at least a week, after Mayor Jeff Longwell voiced frustration with city staff for putting the item on the consent agenda.

“We really don’t like, in this case, last-second changes that are brought to us,” Longwell said Tuesday.

He’s right: That’s not the way city business should be conducted. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time recently that transparency has taken a back seat to supposed efficiency.

This spring, city leaders moved forward with a downtown baseball stadium project at lightning speed, approving the sale of prime riverfront property to a mostly undisclosed group of developers.

Initially, the ballpark development agreement was released to the public just days before the planned council vote. But reporting by The Eagle raised key questions and prompted city leaders to postpone the vote and solicit public comment.

Leasing airport acreage to a private developer for 50 years deserves more than a cursory vote, and Wichita taxpayers deserve more than a few hours’ notice.

Unlike the new ballpark, which is on a fast track to be completed before opening day of the 2020 baseball season, there’s no hurry to build another airport hotel.

If city leaders want public support for any development, they need to be deliberate, transparent and upfront about their plans, and they should discuss them in an open forum.

Enough with the 11th-hour changes and burying big deals in the consent agenda.

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