One of my favorite sports movies, “Field of Dreams,” featured this memorable line: “If you build it, he will come.” I wouldn’t be surprised if these same words were in the minds of Kansas economic development officials when they successfully recruited the 117-year-old American Royal from Missouri to Kansas.
But the Royal’s move isn’t just bad news for Missourians; it’s terrible policy for Kansans.
The Royal is a Kansas City institution, one whose fall catalog of rodeos, barbeque and livestock competitions herald the start of winter and the region’s holiday season. Thanks to tens of millions in sales tax revenue bonds, those traditions will soon move away from the Royal’s current digs in Kansas City, Mo., to nearby Kansas City, Kan.
Kansas’ $80 million contribution to the project is about double what American Royal was publicly trying to get out of Kansas City, Mo., officials just two years ago to keep the Royal in the city’s West Bottoms.
But did Kansas even have to “build it” with taxpayer money to entice the American Royal to move? The Royal’s brand is defined by its history in the Kansas City area – even Kansas City’s baseball team is named after the organization. So it’s safe to say that American Royal wasn’t going to move its operations to Texas or Florida.
But setting aside for now the important question of whether this is an appropriate role of government (it isn’t), Wyandotte County has been seeing significant economic growth that would have made it an attractive landing spot for the Royal anyway.
Wyandotte County was “building it” – a functioning economy that has attracted investments from Google, Amazon and others in recent years – before Kansas’ $80 million incentive was ever put on the table.
But Wyandotte’s recent successes don’t justify Kansas’ decision to subsidize the American Royal move. Indeed, the state’s $80 million giveaway has all the hallmarks of bad policy and poor judgment from Kansas’ political class.
The American Royal was already getting cheaper land and a prime location. The tens of millions in taxpayer support is just the KC strip on top of this gravy train sundae.
Sure, Kansas gets a talking point in the battle for the economic soul of the region, but it’s a point that is likely to be eclipsed by the next round of billion-dollar business poaching that’s certain to come.
It’s time to end this tax incentive rodeo and finally pursue a mature economic development policy – one that doesn’t force taxpayers to build the fields of their politicians’ dreams.
Michael Austin is a policy analyst at the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank in Missouri. He previously worked as an economist at the Kansas Department of Revenue and as an economic adviser to Gov. Sam Brownback.