A lot of attention has been focused recently on multi-millionaire developer Shirley Helzberg and her proposed TIF project in the Crossroads District. An upstart group, consisting largely of Kansas City School District parents, has brought the issue of public subsidies for Crossroads projects into sharp relief by waging a successful petition drive that could scuttle the project or, at the very least, put it to a public vote.
But while that project has been under the spotlight, another big Crossroads project has been sailing along under the aegis of a state-authorized agency that can dole out tax breaks without going through the traditional, local-government process. That process involves reviews by the Tax Increment Financing Commission and a City Council subcommittee and, ultimately, approval by the City Council.
The agency is called Port KC, which until last May was the Port Authority of Kansas City.
It’s an agency that, in my opinion, needs to be watched closely.
Port KC — the subject of a long editorial in Sunday’s Kansas City Star — will oversee a $42 million redevelopment of the Corrigan Building at 19th and Walnut streets. Like Helzberg’s proposed project — redeveloping a vacant building for the BNIM architectural firm — the so-called “Corrigan Station” will get significant property-tax breaks. The Star editorial said taxing entities including the city, the county, the Kansas City Public Library and the Kansas City School District will lose out on $3 million in taxes they would otherwise get without tax breaks.
This should be a big concern to Kansas Citians. Not just in the redevelopment of the Corrigan building but because of what it portends down the road: A possible spate of development or redevelopment projects going through Port KC, circumventing the traditional city-approved process…Why would developers want to put themselves through the high-profile process that the Helzberg proposal has been subjected to when they could quietly work out tax-abatement deals with Port KC?
The Star’s editorial quoted Calvin Williford, a top Jackson County official, as saying that the tactic of taking tax-abatement projects through Port KC, instead of the City Council, “appears to be designed to expedite approvals and exclude public comment.”
You might wonder: What the hell is Port KC doing in the Crossroads?
With its name, you would think the agency’s focus would be on development around and adjacent to the Missouri River. To some extent it is, but its reach is much longer.
…Pardon a brief digression here. My experience with the Port Authority was limited to covering its approval of a casino operation at the foot of Grand Avenue in the 1990s. Two companies, Hilton Hotels and Boyd Gaming, were battling tooth and nail for the right to build a casino at the foot of Grand. At the end of a long, tense meeting, the Port Authority gave the nod to Hilton by one vote. Later, Dan Margolies, then a reporter with the Kansas City Business Journal, exposed an indirect payoff between Hilton and Port Authority Chairman Elbert Anderson, who cast the deciding vote. Anderson was later convicted of bribing public officials to direct business to his public relations firm…By the way, the casino — now the Isle of Capri — was never built at the foot of Grand. It was built over by the I-35 bridge because officials wisely determined a casino was very unlikely to succeed in the confined space at the bottom of Grand. I remember one Port Authority member, who voted for the Boyd proposal, saying, “I’m not going to send it (the casino) down to that hole.”
In any event, as Port KC’s website says, it is granted broad governmental and economic development powers, including the ability to:
— Acquire, own, construct, redevelop, lease, maintain, and conduct land reclamation, residential development, commercial and mixed-use development, industrial parks and facilities and terminals, terminal facilities and any other type of port facility.
— Promote and expand inland and river port commercial throughput of cargo and freight.
— Identify and pursue redevelopment opportunities at blighted and historic preservation sites.
— Redevelop the Downtown Kansas City Riverfront to promote and develop new opportunities for residence, commerce and leisure.
— Promote the full integration of multi-modal transportation assets to increase commercial opportunities locally, nationally and internationally.
I believe development of the streetcar line is nominally what is allowing Port KC to get its nose under the tent in the Crossroads. The streetcar line qualifies, of course as a “multi-modal transportation asset.” For all I know, however, Port KC can operate anywhere in the city it chooses.
Like I say, this is an agency that needs to be monitored; it has the appearance of an operation that could run amok by virtue of its broad statutory power.
Fortunately, the city has some control over Port KC. The agency is governed by a nine-member board of commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor, with, I believe, the consent of the City Council. The current chairman is a man named George E. Wolf, a partner in the Shook, Hardy, Bacon law firm. I don’t know Wolf, but I believe he is the son of George “Ed” Wolf, who was Kansas City public works director during some of the years I covered City Hall (1985-1995).
The Star’s editorial said, “At some point, if the city decides Port KC is getting too lavish with its tax breaks, (Mayor Sly) James…should step in to try to halt it.”
The next paragraph, however, quoted James as saying he had never considered what he might do if Port KC began, in his opinion, to overreach. That’s worrisome. Of course, this is the same mayor who is 100 percent behind the BNIM project.
So, then, who’s going to be watching to see if the camel tries to get its whole body inside the Big Tent?