Tag Archives: Downtown Wichita arena

WichitaLiberty.TV September 15, 2013

WichitaLiberty.TV logo

In this episode of WichitaLiberty.TV, host Bob Weeks reviews chapter 4 of “Economics in One Lesson,” about how public works mean taxes, and efforts to create jobs through spending on public works do more ham than good, if the public asset is not truly needed. The tax used to build the Instrust Bank Arena in Wichita is analyzed in this light. Then on to chapter 5, “Taxes Discourage Production.” Amanda BillyRock illustrates, and Bob explains that notwithstanding inventions like the powdered orange drink Tang, innovation and progress comes primarily from the private sector, not from government programs. Episode 13, broadcast September 15, 2013. View below, or click here to view at YouTube.

Touring a Wichita-owned downtown retail development

I have often wondered why economists, with these absurdities all around them, so easily adopt the view that men act rationally. This may be because they study an economic system in which the discipline of the market ensures that, in a business setting, decisions are more or less rational. The employee of a corporation who buys something for $10 and sells it for $8 is not likely to do so for long. … A politician who wastes his country’s resources on a grand scale may have a successful career.
– Ronald Coase

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-01

At one time it was thought that the Wichita city-owned parking structure in the 400 block of East William Street would house retail shops along the street. But the results should give us reason to be wary of government economic development efforts.

As reported by the Wichita Eagle almost twenty years ago on Wednesday, October 20, 1993:

The council also approved a plan to spend about $76 a square foot to construct roughly 6,000 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the parking garage. The space would lease for an estimated $8.70 a square foot.

Council member Sheldon Kamen questioned that part of the plan. ”I just can’t visualize spending $76 a square foot,” he said. “If I was a developer I wouldn’t spend $76 a square foot for retail space on William street.”

Council member Joan Cole disagreed with Kamen, calling $8.70 a “very good price” that would attract tenants. ”It is my feeling there are small operations that would find this kind of small space very attractive,” she said.

(Adjusted for inflation, these prices would be $122 and $14.)

But it hasn’t happened. As can be seen in this video, a Wichita city government office occupied some of the space, but the office has moved to another location.

It’s not as though the building has some advantages. There are hundreds of state employees parking in the garage each workday. It’s adjacent to the block with the Eaton Hotel and the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, the agency charged with promoting downtown. This retail space is right across the street from the city’s bus transit center. It’s also one block away from the Intrust Bank Arena, which was promoted as a driver of commerce and activity for the surrounding area.

william-street-parking-garage-2013-09-02-02

As can be seen in the nearby photos (click them for larger versions), a walk down this block also reveals maintenance issues that might, in some circumstances, be considered as contributing to blight. Maybe that’s why there’s evidently no demand to rent this space — except by a government office, and even it has left.

The difference

What is the difference between private ownership of assets and government ownership? A big factor is the accountability provided by markets, along with the profit motive. Private owners of rental property like this have a big incentive to keep it filled with tenants. If the private owners are able to attract tenants and control their costs, they can earn a profit. Markets impose a discipline on these costs, because landlords can charge only what the market will bear for rent. If landlords can’t attract tenants, or can’t control costs, they go out of business. That makes the property available to someone else, perhaps someone who can manage the property successfully.

Markets and the profit motive are not perfect. But when private landlords are inefficient, no one is harmed except the landlords.

Government, however, can’t earn a profit or suffer a loss. It can’t even calculate profit and loss in any meaningful sense. Usually government doesn’t account for its capital investment. That’s certainly the case with this empty retail space. A private landlord would realize that this empty space that can’t be rented has an opportunity cost that is very real. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Wichita city management.

This illustrates the weak accountability that government faces. Despite situations like this, the Wichita city manager received effusive praise from the Wichita City Council this year, along with a large raise in pay. Two years ago the incumbent Wichita mayor didn’t inspire a strong opponent, and only about 12 percent of the people bothered to vote.

Considering all the advantages this government property has, it’s failing. It has no tenants, and it’s becoming blighted. The best thing the city could do is sell this property so that the benefits of markets and the profit-and-loss system can replace city bureaucrats.

Intrust Bank Arena finances: The worst news is hidden

The true state of the finances of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita are not often a subject of public discussion. Arena boosters promote a revenue-sharing arrangement between the county and the arena operator, referring to this as profit or loss. But this arrangement is not an accurate and complete accounting, and hides the true economics of the arena.

There are two ways of looking at the finance of the arena. Most attention is given to the “profit” (or loss) earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year, the first year of operation for the arena. While described as “profit” by many — and there was much crowing last year over the seemingly large amount — this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid, and how the county participates.

The presentation made to commissioners in February for the 2011 operating year said that the arena’s “profit” was $389,659. This is smaller than the threshold for the county to participate, so the county received nothing for 2011.

While county manager Bill Buchanan and Commissioner Dave Unruh referred to this as a profit, the true facts of the arena’s finances appear — to some degree — in the county’s comprehensive annual financial report for 2011. In this document, we learn that the arena suffered an operating loss of $5.7 million. A large part of that was due to $5.2 million in depreciation expense.

This is a much better reckoning of the economics of the Intrust Bank Arena.

Depreciation expense is not something that is paid out in cash every year. Instead, it provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets over their lifespan. It provides a way to recognize opportunity costs, that is, what could be done with our resources if not spent on the arena.

But some don’t recognize this. Last year, Unruh made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters such as the Wichita Eagle editorial board is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past, something that has no bearing today. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take depreciation into account. While Unruh is correct in that depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow, it is an economic fact that can’t be ignored — except by politicians, apparently.

Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.

Wichita Intrust Bank Arena profit, in perspective

Last week the Sedgwick County Commission heard a report from county managers regarding the financial performance of the Intrust Bank Arena. The arena, located in downtown Wichita, is owned by the county.

The main facts are that revenue and profits are down. A Wichita Eagle article holds more details about the numbers.

What citizens need to know is this: The honeymoon is over. The promised boost to downtown that arena backers promised has yet to materialize in any broad sense. When it does poke through — an example being the Ambassador Hotel — it requires many millions of taxpayer subsidy.

But perhaps most important is the realization that county leaders are not being honest with its citizens. The “profit” shown by the arena is not reckoned using anything like businesses use, or even most branches of government, for that matter. As explained in the following article from last August, Sedgwick County doesn’t recognize the large capital investment made by citizens to build the arena. Instead, it treats that sacrifice as having no relevance to the economics underlying the arena.

On top of that, the profit statement presented to commissioners is accompanied by this qualification, which the county does not explain to citizens: “[These statements are] not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense ignored

By Bob Weeks

Reports that income earned by the Intrust Bank Arena is down sharply has brought the arena’s finances back into the news. The arena, located in downtown Wichita and owned by Sedgwick County, is deemed to be a success by the county and arena boosters based on “profit” figures generated during its first year of operations. But these numbers are not an honest assessment of the arena’s financial performance.

When the numbers were presented to Sedgwick County commissioners this week, commission chair Dave Unruh said that he is “pleased that we we still are showing black ink.”

He then made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past and that has no bearing today. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

Since it is only one year old, presumably the arena could be sold for something near its building cost, less an allowance for wear and tear. If not, then the county has a lot of explaining to do as to why it built an asset that has no market value.

But even if the arena has no market value — and I suspect that in reality it has very little value — it still has an economic cost that must be recognized, that cost being the sales tax collected to pay for it. While arena boosters dismiss this as past history, the county recognizes this cost each year, and will continue to do so for many years.

The county, however, doesn’t go out of its way to present the complete and accurate accounting of the arena’s cost. Instead, the county and arena boosters trumpet the “profit” earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year. While described as profit by many — and there was much crowing over the seemingly large amount — this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has warned that these figures — and the monthly “profit” figures presented to commissioners — do not include depreciation expense. That expense is a method of recognizing and accounting for the large capital cost of the arena — the cost that arena boosters dismiss.

In April Sedgwick County released that depreciation number in its 2010 Comprehensive Annual Report. The number is pretty big: $4.4 million, some four times the purported “earnings” of the arena.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take this number into account. Unruh is correct in that this depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow. That cash was spent during the construction phase of the arena.

But depreciation expense provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets like buildings over their lifespan. It recognizes and respects the investment of those who paid the sales tax. When we follow standard practices like recognizing the cost of capital assets through depreciation expense, we’re forced to recognize that there’s a $4.4 million gorilla in the room that arena boosters don’t want to talk about.

Using information about arena operations contained in the operations report, we can construct what an actual income statement for the arena would look like, following generally accepted business principles. According to the statement, total operating income for 2010 was $7,005,224. Operating expenses were $4,994,488. Subtracting gives a figure of $2,010,736. This number, however, is not labeled a profit in the report. Instead, the report calls it “Increase in Net Assets Arising from Operating Activities Managed by SMG.”

An accounting of profit would have to subtract the $4.4 million in depreciation expense. Doing that results in a loss of $2,389,264. This — or something like it — is the number we should be discussing when assessing the financial performance of Intrust Bank Arena.

Fiscal conservatives — and sometimes even liberals — often speak of “running government like a business.” But here’s an example of conservative government leaders ignoring a basic business principle in order to paint a rosy picture of a government spending project.

Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.

Wichita city council: substance and process

Today the Wichita City Council will conduct a public hearing for the second time. The reason the council must hold the hearing again is that a mistake was made in the official notice of the hearing.

While I commend the city for realizing the mistake and following the letter of the law in conducting the hearing again, we must contrast this behavior, which is following the process according to the law, with the council’s past behavior, which has shown no regard for the spirit and substance of the law regarding public hearings.

The most recent example is when the city council approved a letter of intent to do something for which it had yet to hold a public hearing. That act made the public hearing a meaningless exercise. The council approved everything that was contained in the letter of intent, except that one item was modified, and that was not a result of the public hearing.

Another example is from 2008, when the council conducted a public hearing essentially in secret, making last-minute changes to the substance to be heard. At the time, Randy Brown, former editorial page editor for the Wichita Eagle and Executive Director of Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government, agreed with my contention that the hearing was a “bait and switch” operation. Writing in a letter to the Eagle, Brown said:

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public ‘s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

It turns out that the council’s actions regarding this hearing were permissible under the letter of the law, according to the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s office.

We are left with the realization, however, that we have a city with elected officials and bureaucratic leaders that are careful to follow the letter of the law, but are unable — or unwilling — to see the larger picture regarding public policy. Substance is of little concern.

Following is my op-ed from the December 5, 2008 Wichita Eagle:

On Tuesday December 2, 2008, the Wichita City Council held a public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district. As someone with an interest in this matter, I watched the city’s website for the appearance of the agenda report for this meeting. This document, also known as the “green sheets” and often several hundred pages in length, contains background information on items appearing on the meeting’s agenda.

At around 11:30 am Monday, the day before the meeting, I saw that the agenda report was available. I download it and printed the few pages of interest to me.

At the meeting Tuesday morning, I was surprised to hear council member Jim Skelton expressed his dismay that a change to the TIF plan wasn’t included in the material he printed and took home to read. This change, an addition of up to $10,000,000 in spending on parking, is material to the project. It’s also controversial, and if the public had known of this plan, I’m sure that many speakers would have attended the public hearing.

But the public didn’t have much notice of this controversial change to the plan. Inspection of the agenda report document — the version that contains the parking proposal — reveals that it was created at 4:30 pm on Monday. I don’t know how much longer after that it took to be placed on the city’s website. But we can conclude that citizens — and at least one city council member — didn’t have much time to discuss and debate the desirability of this parking plan.

The news media didn’t have time, either. Reporting in the Wichita Eagle on Monday and Tuesday didn’t mention the addition of the money for parking.

This last-minute change to the TIF plan tells us a few things. First, it reveals that the downtown arena TIF plan is a work in progress, with major components added on-the-fly just a few days before the meeting. That alone gives us reason to doubt its wisdom. Citizens should demand that the plan be withdrawn until we have sufficient time to discuss and deliberate matters as important as this. What happened on Tuesday doesn’t qualify as a meaningful public hearing on the actual plan. A better description is political bait and switch.

Second, when the business of democracy is conducted like this, citizens lose respect for both the government officials involved and the system itself. Instead of openness and transparency in government, we have citizens and, apparently, even elected officials shut out of the process.

Third, important questions arise: Why was the addition of the parking plan not made public until the eleventh hour? Was this done intentionally, so that opponents would not have time to prepare, or to even make arrangements to attend the meeting? Or was it simple incompetence and lack of care?

The officials involved — council members Jeff Longwell and Lavonta Williams, who negotiated the addition of the parking with county commissioners; Allen Bell, who is Wichita’s director of urban development; and Mayor Carl Brewer — need to answer to the citizens of Wichita as to why this important business was conducted in this haphazard manner that disrespects citizen involvement.

Intrust Bank Arena depreciation expense ignored

Reports that income earned by the Intrust Bank Arena is down sharply has brought the arena’s finances back into the news. The arena, located in downtown Wichita and owned by Sedgwick County, is deemed to be a success by the county and arena boosters based on “profit” figures generated during its first year of operations. But these numbers are not an honest assessment of the arena’s financial performance.

When the numbers were presented to Sedgwick County commissioners this week, commission chair Dave Unruh said that he is “pleased that we we still are showing black ink.”

He then made remarks that show the severe misunderstanding that he and almost everyone labor under regarding the nature of the spending on the arena: “I want to underscore the fact that the citizens of Sedgwick County voted to pay for this facility in advance. And so not having debt service on it is just a huge benefit to our government and to the citizens, so we can go forward without having to having to worry about making those payments and still show positive cash flow. So it’s still a great benefit to our community and I’m still pleased with this report.”

The contention of Unruh and other arena boosters is that the capital investment of $183,625,241 (not including an operating and maintenance reserve) on the arena is merely a historical artifact, something that happened in the past and that has no bearing today. This attitude, however, disrespects the sacrifices of the people of Sedgwick County and its visitors to raise those funds.

Since it is only one year old, presumably the arena could be sold for something near its building cost, less an allowance for wear and tear. If not, then the county has a lot of explaining to do as to why it built an asset that has no market value.

But even if the arena has no market value — and I suspect that in reality it has very little value — it still has an economic cost that must be recognized, that cost being the sales tax collected to pay for it. While arena boosters dismiss this as past history, the county recognizes this cost each year, and will continue to do so for many years.

The county, however, doesn’t go out of its way to present the complete and accurate accounting of the arena’s cost. Instead, the county and arena boosters trumpet the “profit” earned by the arena for the county according to an operating and management agreement between the county and SMG, a company that operates the arena.

This agreement specifies a revenue sharing mechanism between the county and SMG. Based on the terms of the agreement, Sedgwick County received payment of $1,116,442 for the 2010 year. While described as profit by many — and there was much crowing over the seemingly large amount — this payment does not represent any sort of “profit” or “earnings” in the usual sense. In fact, the introductory letter that accompanies these calculations warns readers that these are “not intended to be a complete presentation of INTRUST Bank Arena’s financial position and results of operations and are not intended to be a presentation in conformity with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”

That bears repeating: This is not a reckoning of profit and loss in any recognized sense. It is simply an agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG as to how SMG is to be paid.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn has warned that these figures — and the monthly “profit” figures presented to commissioners — do not include depreciation expense. That expense is a method of recognizing and accounting for the large capital cost of the arena — the cost that arena boosters dismiss.

In April Sedgwick County released that depreciation number in its 2010 Comprehensive Annual Report. The number is pretty big: $4.4 million, some four times the purported “earnings” of the arena.

Any honest accounting or reckoning of the performance of Intrust Bank Arena must take this number into account. Unruh is correct in that this depreciation expense is not a cash expense that affects cash flow. That cash was spent during the construction phase of the arena.

But depreciation expense provides a way to recognize and account for the cost of long-lived assets like buildings over their lifespan. It recognizes and respects the investment of those who paid the sales tax. When we follow standard practices like recognizing the cost of capital assets through depreciation expense, we’re forced to recognize that there’s a $4.4 million gorilla in the room that arena boosters don’t want to talk about.

Using information about arena operations contained in the operations report, we can construct what an actual income statement for the arena would look like, following generally accepted business principles. According to the statement, total operating income for 2010 was $7,005,224. Operating expenses were $4,994,488. Subtracting gives a figure of $2,010,736. This number, however, is not labeled a profit in the report. Instead, the report calls it “Increase in Net Assets Arising from Operating Activities Managed by SMG.”

An accounting of profit would have to subtract the $4.4 million in depreciation expense. Doing that results in a loss of $2,389,264. This — or something like it — is the number we should be discussing when assessing the financial performance of Intrust Bank Arena.

Fiscal conservatives — and sometimes even liberals — often speak of “running government like a business.” As an example, Unruh’s campaign website from last year states “… as a business owner he works hard to apply good business principles to County government …”

But here’s an example of conservative government leaders ignoring a basic business principle in order to paint a rosy picture of a government spending project. Unruh is not alone in doing this.

Without honest discussion of numbers like these, we make decisions based on incomplete and false information. This is especially important as civic leaders agitate for another sales tax or other taxes to pay for more public investment. The sales pitch is that once the tax is collected and the assets paid for, we don’t need to consider the cost. They contend, as is the attitude of Unruh and arena boosters, that we can just sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist. This is a false line of reasoning, and citizens ought not to be fooled.

Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena shrouded in mystery

Okay, maybe that’s a little over-hyped, but when arena cheerleader Rhonda Holman of the Wichita Eagle starts to question the operations of Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, there must be something going on.

Holman’s column of yesterday complained of lack of transparency in the arena’s operations: “But with hindsight, and with the Intrust Bank Arena open three months and generating revenue, it’s more clear all the time that county leaders gave away too much oversight authority to SMG, leaving citizens in the strange and frustrating position of having too little hard information about how their $206 million investment is doing.”

The sudden departure of arena manager Chris Presson under circumstances that can only be described as alarming will add to the concern of citizens. Well, not all citizens. Some arena boosters simply don’t care how much of a burden the arena may become to county taxpayers, as long as they have their arena.

The lack of transparency at the arena and some county commissioner’s lack of concern about this important issue has been the subject of articles on this site. See Wichita downtown arena open records failure, Wichita downtown arena contract seems to require Sedgwick County approval, and Sedgwick County keeps lease agreement secret.

Wichita Exchange Place TIF should be rejected

Tomorrow’s meeting of the Wichita city council will feature a public hearing as to whether a tax increment financing district that benefits Real Development should be modified. The TIF district is already approved in the amount of $9.3 million. The applicants are asking that the city’s contribution be increased to $11.8 million, plus approval of changes to the project plan.

The first issue we should address is the purpose of these public hearings. Presumably notice of their existence is given not only so citizens and interested parties can plan to attend, but also so that there can be discussion of the details of the issue. This second reason is not fulfilled to any meaningful extent. There just isn’t time for anything to happen. The agenda report for this matter did not appear on the city’s website until around noon Friday, just two business days before the hearing.

Furthermore, the plan may be revised as late as today — the day before the public hearing — according to reporting in today’s Wichita Eagle.

There needs to be more time if these public hearings are to be anything but a sham. The city approved April 13 as the date for the public hearing on March 23. So the public hearing is announced, but details of the project are not known. How will the public — much less city council members — become aware of the final plan?

The plan to be heard tomorrow is the second revision of the original plan, which was first approved in 2007. Some may criticize Real Development for the shifting plan. But this is the nature of business. Change, however, is something that government bureaucracy is particularly ill-equipped to deal with.

There are reasons to be concerned with these particular applicants. Several floors in buildings they own in Wichita have been subject of foreclosure actions. While it is not Real Development that failed to pay the loans that were foreclosed on, this happened in buildings Real Development owns and developed with a condominium-style of ownership.

There is also issue of allegations made by tenants of Real Development that it is not performing on its obligations. These tenants will not come forward in public, as they are afraid that if the city stops subsidizing Real Development, the tenants will suffer.

But the largest and overriding issue is that the city should not be directing taxpayer investment outside the market process. It is an undeniable fact that the city is considering forcing Wichita taxpayers to risk an investment of around $10 million in this project. And if the investment doesn’t work out, the city is likely to force Wichitans to spend even more money on this project, as the city did when it made a no-interest and low-interest loan to a downtown theater that was underperforming in its TIF district.

It would be one thing if TIF districts were good for the city, but there is no such evidence. There is evidence that TIF districts are great for the developers — after all, wouldn’t like to have their increase in property taxes spent for their exclusive benefit, which is the purpose of a TIF district — but not so good for the rest of the city. The article Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development by economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman states, in its conclusion:

TIF districts grow much faster than other areas in their host municipalities. TIF boosters or naive analysts might point to this as evidence of the success of tax increment financing, but they would be wrong. Observing high growth in an area targeted for development is unremarkable.

So TIFs are good for the favored development — not a surprising finding. What about the rest of the city? Continuing from the same study:

We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.

So TIF districts may actually reduce the rate of economic growth in the rest of the city.

Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O’Toole has written this about tax increment financing:

TIF does not increase the total amount of development that takes place in a city or region; it merely transfers development from one part of the region to another. … The new developments in the TIF districts consume fire, police, and other services, but since they don’t pay for those services, people in the rest of the city either have to pay higher taxes or accept a lower level of services. This means people outside the district lose twice: first when developments that might have enhanced their property values are enticed into the TIF district and second when they pay more taxes or receive less services because of the TIF district.

Similar findings apply to the issuance of industrial revenue bonds, as the city issued last week and issues frequently.

Finally, I have a simple question for the mayor, city council, and city staff: Will any downtown development occur without public subsidy?

Resources on tax increment financing:

Exchange Place Redevelopment Plan April 13, 2010

In Sedgwick County, is there slack time?

As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the Sedgwick County Commission decided to reimburse the county for time its employees spent working on arena-related matters. The money will come from the sales tax that was collected to build the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita. The amount of money the commission decided to transfer is $1.6 million, although according to the Eagle, the total cost could reach $2.6 million.

Here’s something of concern to me in the story: “But he [Sedgwick County chief financial officer Chris Chronis] pushed for the money to remain in the arena and pavilions’ operating and maintenance reserve fund, which last month had just less than $14 million, because taking money out of the fund would drain it four years earlier than expected — in 2024.”

Evidently the county has financial projections for the arena all the way out to 2018, and possibly beyond. That is a very long time into the future, and any projections about the performance of the arena over this period would be based on assumptions that can’t be estimated with anything approaching certainty.

Projections with this precision made about events so far in the future surrounded by so much uncertainty remind me of the saying that economists use a decimal point to show they have a sense of humor.

Back to the present: Commissioner Dave Unruh told the Eagle that the county did not hire any new staff to perform work that has an estimated value of $2.6 million. My question is this: Is this evidence that there was $2.6 million of slack time in county employee’s schedules? How were they able to get this vast amount of work accomplished? Perhaps after the arena work that has occupied $2.6 million of staff time is complete, we could hire out this staff to earn revenue for the county, as it seems they will have time on their hands.

Regarding the contention that voters in 2004 were promised that no property tax money would be used on the arena, Unruh was quoted by the Eagle as saying: “I do think that we made a very strong commitment that all the sales tax money would be used for the arena and pavilions.”

It seems that now Sedgwick County voters have a new concern: When politicians make a promise, do we have to ask them if this is a regular commitment or a very strong commitment? Or are there other types of commitments that we don’t know about?

Assessment of Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena’s success premature

Any rational assessment of the success of the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita must realize that the arena is in its honeymoon period. Will the parade of big-name stars playing to a packed arena continue for long? Will the Wichita Eagle and local television stations continue to breathlessly announce every upcoming event?

Until initial enthusiasm dies down and the arena has a track record of a year or more, we simply have no idea what the financial performance of the arena will be. That’s what’s important.

This premature glowing assessment of the arena’s success is dangerous in that it leads us to believe that there is a positive role for large government projects in Wichita. Worse, people are lead to think that taxation is a good way to pay for such things. As an example, the one cent sales tax used to pay for the arena is presently touted as a model for funding other government spending, ranging from Governor Parkinson’s proposal for a sales tax to fund state government to what surely will be a proposal for a sales tax to fund the revitalization of downtown Wichita.

Proponents say that the sales tax was painless, so why not do it again? Some were sorry to see it expire. As the sales tax that funded the arena was nearing its end, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton “wondered … whether a 1 percent sales tax could help the county raise revenue.” (“Norton floats idea of 1 percent county sales tax,” Wichita Eagle, April 4, 2007)

But the tax was not painless. Undoubtedly, the employment landscape was shifted in Sedgwick County because of the tax, and that caused some people to be unemployed. My post Prepare for sales tax-induced job effects now reports on what happened in Little Rock when that city’s arena was built. It would be reasonable to think that similar effects happened here.

Last year in Portland, a proposal to build a new minor league baseball stadium was found to produce a net job loss. An economics consulting firm reported: “Thus, the Lent’s project would have a net impact of a 182 job-year loss on the City’s economy (a gain of 175 from the construction less a loss of 357 due to reduced spending by households and businesses because of higher taxes).”

It also concluded that “If those individuals who put their money into baseball via taxes are allowed to put that money into the private market, that same amount of money would actually yield more jobs.” Reportedly, Portland’s mayor “appears to have sat on” the study and was not eager to release it.

This effect — a shiny, highly touted public works project being much more visible than private dispersed economic activity — was known long ago and explained by Henry Hazlitt in his classic work Economics in One Lesson:

Therefore for every public job created by the bridge project a private job has been destroyed somewhere else. We can see the men employed on the bridge. We can watch them at work. The employment argument of the government spenders becomes vivid, and probably for most people convincing. But there are other things that we do not see, because, alas, they have never been permitted to come into existence. They are the jobs destroyed by the $1,000,000 taken from the taxpayers. All that has happened, at best, is that there has been a diversion of jobs because of the project.

We were also told that the arena would be a driver of downtown development. But in its first test, the Wichita City Council evidently didn’t believe what arena boosters told them, as it voted to grant several million dollars in subsidy to the developer of a hotel just a few blocks from the arena. Will all future development around the arena — if it happens — require similar subsidy?

Intrust Bank Arena’s missing name

A note to readers: I served as co-manager of Peterjohn’s campaign in 2008.

The commemorative plaque on the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, Kansas.The commemorative plaque on the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, Kansas.

On the commemorative plaque outside the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita, there’s a missing name.

The names of eight Sedgwick County commissioners appear, including all who were members of the Commission when the arena sales tax passed in November 2004, all who have served since then, and all present commissioners.

Except for one: current third district commissioner Karl Peterjohn.

In 2004 Peterjohn led opposition to the sales tax ballot measure that funded the arena. When he decided early in 2008 that he would run for the commission against long-time Republican incumbent Tom Winters, Peterjohn told Winters that the next commissioner would have their name on a plaque on the arena. On primary election night, when Peterjohn defeated Winters, Peterjohn told me “I told him [Winters] he could have that spot, and I’m keeping my word.”

It was a gracious gesture.

There’s been a small controversy surrounding Peterjohn in his new role as arena supporter. He participated in the arena’s recent ribbon-cutting ceremony. More importantly, he voted last February for a $1.7 million seating upgrade. That upgrade would reduce the cost of transition between events, and also improve seating and viewing.

That vote, along with participation in the ribbon-cutting, is central to Peterjohn’s goal of seeing that the arena is a success and doesn’t become a fiscal burden on taxpayers. Although the contract with SMG, the arena’s management firm, shields Sedgwick County from losses, that contract comes to an end someday. It’s also full of loopholes that, in my opinion, would allow SMG to make an early exit if arena finances are not favorable.

Working for the success of the arena, therefore, is a logical continuation of Peterjohn’s concern for the taxpayer, the same concern as when he opposed the arena in 2004, he said.

There’s also been grumbling that county commissioners and bureaucrats will receive perks such as tickets and premium parking passes to arena events. Peterjohn said he’s received no tickets or parking perks.

A Wichita Eagle blog post by Deb Gruver on this topic is Karl Peterjohn’s name not on Intrust Bank Arena sign.

Ticket scalping is a market function, not a criminal activity

Yesterday’s Wichita Eagle carried an article about ticket scalping for events at the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita. Some concerts are very popular, which leads to people frustrated at two things: the inability to buy tickets when they go on sale, and then the high prices that ticket scalpers ask for tickets on the aftermarket.

I understand the frustration of the stymied ticket buyers. Who wants to pay $300 for a ticket that was sold by the arena’s box office for $50? It would be great if everyone who wanted to attend could do so for $50 — or for $5, for that matter. And that gets to the heart of the problem and why it isn’t likely to be solved: human behavior and economics.

Walter Block has a chapter in his book Defending the Undefendable that defends the ticket scalper. (A reading of the chapter may be listened to here. The book in pdf form is here.)

As it turns out, scalping is a beneficial economic activity. But even if you don’t believe this, scalping could be avoided if venues like the arena would sell tickets in a different manner.

According to Block, scalping requires “a fixed, invariable supply of tickets.” After all , if the supply of tickets was unlimited, everyone could buy all they wanted at list price (the price printed on the ticket, and what the venue sells them for).

Also, scalping requires “the ticket price chosen by management be lower than the ‘market clearing price.’” Markets clear when people want to buy the same number of tickets that are for sale. This balance is achieved by allowing the price of the tickets to freely adjust. When the list price of the ticket is less than what some people are willing to pay, that’s when scalpers have an opportunity to earn profits.

This points to one way that scalping could be eliminated, if concert promoters wanted to: They could sell tickets like shares of stock or bushels of wheat are sold. These items don’t have a list price. Instead, their price is whatever people are willing to pay.

Why would concert promoters price tickets at less than some people are willing to pay? If a scalper can get say, $300 for a ticket that the box office sells for $50, why doesn’t the box office price the ticket at $300? Or maybe $200? Here’s what Block writes:

For one thing, lower prices invite a large audience. Long lines of people waiting to enter a theater or ballpark constitutes free publicity. In other words, management forgoes higher prices in order to save money it might have had to spend on advertising. In addition, managers are loath to raise ticket prices — even though they would have little difficulty selling them for a big event or special movie — for fear of a backlash. Many people feel that there is a “fair” price for a movie ticket, and managers are responsive to this feeling.

There are several other motivations, less compelling, for keeping prices fixed at below equilibrium levels. Taken together they ensure that this pricing policy — the third condition necessary for scalping — will continue.

In other words, better for scalpers to bear the brunt of public ire for setting market-clearing prices. Can you imagine the public backslash at the Intrust Bank Arena and Sedgwick County if ticket prices for very popular concerts were set at market-clearing prices?

The chapter goes on to explain the two ways that scarce goods — concert tickets in this care — are rationed: price rationing, and non-price rationing. Price rationing, as you might imagine, relies on the price mechanism to determine a market-clearing price so that supply equals demand.

Non-price rationing, on the other hand, relies on something else. Block mentions “first-come, first served” (camping out the night before at the box office window) and favoritism (those connected to or favored in some way by arena management get special privileges) as two methods of non-price rationing. The Intrust Bank Arena has used another method — a lottery — for some concerts.

So which is “fair?” Does price rationing favor those with the ability to pay high prices? Certainly scalping makes it easier for rich people to obtain scarce tickets. But Block says that scalping provides entrepreneurial opportunities. Someone with a small amount of capital (just enough to buy one or more tickets) but a lot of spare time (someone without a job) can camp out in line and earn profits by selling the tickets. Or, they could simply wait in line and be paid a wage.

By the way, scalpers are not guaranteed profits. If there is not much demand for tickets for an event, scalpers will have to sell the tickets at a loss — or they may not be able to sell them at any price.

Back to Wichita: According to the Eagle article, a group named Taxpayers for Tickets has been formed to take action against scalping. Reading the website, it seems that the group’s focus is on more laws and enforcement of them to effect the goal of getting tickets in the hands of the taxpayers who paid for the construction of the Intrust Bank Arena.

I don’t favor this approach. First, as we’ve seen, scalping is a socially beneficial activity that provides market-clearing prices for tickets.

Second, there is plenty of actual crime on our community that causes death, injury, and loss of property. We don’t need to squander law enforcement resources on victimless crimes like people willingly and voluntarily engaging in market transactions.

In a letter published in the Wichita Eagle, Todd Allen, head of Taxpayers for Tickets, wrote “I figured that since the taxpayers paid for the arena, that makes us the owners.” I hate to disappoint Mr. Allen, but that’s far from the case. Try requesting a contract, as in Sedgwick County keeps lease agreement secret. Not even Sedgwick County Commissioners are able to see the lease of the arena’s flagship tenant.

Another article on ticket scalping is Ticket Scalpers Are Hidden Heroes.

Wichita arena lands a whopper

The Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita has landed NCAA women’s basketball first- and second-round tournament games in 2011.

Recently, the NCAA bypassed the Wichita arena when selecting sites for men’s NCAA games. On KAKE TV, arena manager Chris Presson said women’s games are a testing ground for something “perceived to be bigger. … Certainly the women’s to us is as big as the men’s and is as big a deal to us as the men’s would be. We’re more than content, more than happy with what we’ve got.”

According to Associated Press reporting from earlier this year, “The first two rounds drew an average of 4,100 people.” The Wichita Eagle reports 4,915 averages attendance for all tournament games.

Is Presson being reasonable: women’s games, at 4,100 per game, are equivalent to men’s games, which are likely to sell out the arena? It’s his job to promote the arena, but statements like this are not reasonable.

The publicly-supported arena in downtown Wichita remains a contentious issue. Comments left to a recent post of mine about the arena provide some insight into the thinking of arena tax supporters.

One comment writer said that instead of complaining, I should be supporting the arena. He may have forgotten the extra sales tax that I contributed to pay for the arena. Doesn’t that count?

Another wrote: “My question to you is since the arena has been built, do you want it to succeed or fail?” I guess this writer didn’t read the final sentence of the post, which is: “Ultimately, it is the Sedgwick County taxpayer who is financially responsible for the arena, and it is they who must hope for success.”

So yes, I do hope that the arena is a success. As someone who is opposed to taxation — that’s why I opposed the arena sales tax ballot measure — I sincerely hope that tax revenues are not required to support the arena. Arena tax supporters have already shown that they’re willing to tax one person to build a playhouse for themselves, so I don’t suspect they’ll be opposed to future tax support of the arena, should it become necessary.

Low NBA attendance in Wichita danger sign for Intrust Bank Arena

The Intrust Bank Arena management firm SMG must be wondering what it bit off in Wichita. Last night NBA professional basketball players put sneaker to floor in Wichita for the first time in 14 years, and only an estimated 8,000 fans showed up. (Estimate is by the Wichita Eagle.)

The game was held at the Charles Koch arena on the campus of Wichita State University. That arena has a capacity, according to the goshockers website, of 10,400.

Wichita downtown arena boosters told voters that if we passed the tax, we’d have lots of events like this, and lots of fans would attend. But in this trial run of big-time professional sports in Wichita, the fans that did attend would fill barely more than half of the new downtown Wichita arena.

Arena apologists are likely to come up with a variety of excuses for this embarrassingly poor turnout: It was only an exhibition game. It wasn’t at the downtown arena. It wasn’t the right teams. It was drizzling rain. There will always be excuses.

The citizens of Sedgwick County are going to have to hope that the Intrust Bank Arena can do a better job drawing fans. Even though the SMG contract puts that firm on the hook for losses, that contract has a lot of ways for SMG to wiggle out, even before its five year management term expires. Ultimately, it is the Sedgwick County taxpayer who is financially responsible for the arena, and it is they who must hope for success.

Downtown Wichita parking plan at odds with revitalization goals

Currently, Wichita is struggling to find enough parking spots downtown to meet the demand expected to be created by the new Intrust Bank Arena. It’s been a contentious issue, with many Wichitans skeptical of the city’s ability to supply enough parking at prices that people are willing to pay for.

But did you know that there is likely to be fewer parking spots in downtown Wichita if the firm likely to lead downtown revitalization planning has its way?

Here are a few excerpts from the proposal submitted by Goody Clancy, the firm the city is likely to choose to lead the planning process:

Because transit, walking and biking will be viable options, less parking will be needed. … Parking policy will also unlock opportunity to redevelop parking lots … The effects of visionary choices such as increasing downtown residential development, expanding transit service, and constraining parking supplies will be investigated. … A sound and coordinated approach, encompassing economics, engineering and urban design, is needed to free up existing parking lots for redevelopment. (emphasis added)

I wonder: do city leaders know that their herculean effort to develop more parking downtown is an obstacle to downtown Wichita revitalization?

Welshimer files for re-election to Sedgwick County Commission

Gwen Welshimer campaign announcement 2009-10-09Sedgwick county commissioner Gwen Welshimer files for re-election.

Today, Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen Welshimer filed for re-election to her position as a member of the commission. Her statement is below.

Welshimer, a Democrat, is so far the only candidate in that party. There are three Republicans who have either filed or are considering filing.

Welshimer campaigned and has voted as a fiscal conservative. I asked her given your fiscal conservatism, how will these Republicans differentiate themselves from you? Welshimer said that she’s not heard their campaign platforms. They are all city people, she said, likely to support funding of downtown Wichita.

Responding to my question about the downtown Wichita revitalization planning and the likelihood of a tax to fund it, she said that we’ve given the city a $210 million economic development tool called the downtown Wichita arena. The county has also given many years of property tax incentives, both in the past and in the future. The other 19 cities in the county have not enjoyed this treatment, she said.

In 2006, Welshimer signed a pledge to not raise taxes if elected, and she has fulfilled that pledge so far. Her opponent in that election, incumbent Ben Sciortino, received the endorsement of the Wichita Eagle. Welshimer narrowly won that election, 10,081 votes to 9,941.

Analysis

Given Welshimer’s fiscal conservatism, Republican candidates will find it difficult to run to her right. Her stand against tax increment financing (TIF) districts and subsidies to downtown developers means she’s not likely to get the support of those downtown developers who thrive on taxpayer subsidy. Those people contribute heavily to political campaigns. Additionally, her support for the dismissal of Sedgwick County Manager Bill Buchanan — a position I support — puts her at odds with the Chamber of Commerce crowd. They make political contributions, too.

In this district (district 5), my analysis of a recent voter file shows voter registration runs 29% Democratic, 40% Republican, and 31% unaffiliated. (The remainder are Libertarian and Reform party registrants.)

Considering recent voters (those who voted in an election in 2008), the numbers change a bit. In this case, 30% are Democratic, 44% Republican, and 26% unaffiliated.

Welshimer’s statement

I have filed as a candidate for re-election to the 5th District Seat on the Sedgwick County Commission. I want to continue holding the line for Sedgwick County taxpayers.

At this time, center Downtown redevelopment is the number one issue for this race. I want the tax dollars paid by Southeast Wichita, Derby, and Mulvane to be used for paving roads, drainage, infrastructure, traffic controls, township assistance, and business district enhancements in District #5. The $210 million sales tax arena and decades of property tax incentives for center Downtown have been a weight around the neck of my district. I will support redevelopment of Downtown through private investment only in the future.

I want more property tax reduction. I want to pay for it with new revenues and more efficient policies.

If re-elected, I will continue to work for safe, sensible, and reasonable alternatives to a costly new jail.

The Coliseum site has the potential for 1,000 new jobs and $10 million in new revenue over the next five years. I want to work to make this happen.

I want to continue to work for the success of the National Center for Aviation Training at Jabara Airport. This is evolving into a job training destination center for employers around the world and it offers an incredible new future for Sedgwick County.

I believe in the power of progressive new ideas. I have not been a commissioner who gives in to the out-of-touch “good old boy” network.

I am ready for a rigorous campaign.

Wichita sales tax likely to be proposed

Two recent events have led me to suspect that as part of the plan for the revitalization of downtown Wichita, we’re going to see a sales tax proposed.

The first is Phillip Brownlee’s editorial in last Friday’s Wichita Eagle, which carried the title Taxes are lower than many think. While this editorial focused on property taxes, it’s easy to see this as an argument that Wichitans can bear the burden of more taxation. Softening up the electorate, so to speak.

Then, there’s this email sent to the Wichita city council and Sedgwick county commission members:

I recently received the attached information on Oklahoma City’s next plan for their downtown area. This is their MAPS program that spurred their downtown developed. I thought you might find this of interest.

http://www.okc.gov/maps3/

Sincerely,

John Rolfe
President and CEO
Go Wichita Convention & Visitors Bureau

MAPS — that’s the program that funded Oklahoma City’s downtown improvements through a sales tax, with a second version funding school projects — will be voted on in December. If approved, a 1% sales tax will raise funds for more downtown projects. This email, without saying so directly, endorses the idea of a sales tax for downtown development.

What’s the sales tax in Oklahoma City, you may be wondering? It’s 8.375%. It won’t change if the new MAPS plan is approved by the voters, as a current 1% tax will expire.

That sales tax was billed as “temporary,” and it does appear that it will expire as planned. But, city leaders are recommending approval of the new sales tax. This is similar to the sales tax for the downtown Wichita arena, when as that tax was nearing its end, Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton “wondered … whether a 1 percent sales tax could help the county raise revenue.” (“Norton floats idea of 1 percent county sales tax,” Wichita Eagle, April 4, 2007)

The sales tax for Wichita is 6.3%.

City leaders are likely to use the the Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita as an example of a successful project funded through a sales tax. But any assessment of the success of this project is about two years away. The fact that the arena exists is evidence of a minimum level of competence. It will be some time before we know whether the arena can support itself without being a drain on taxpayers, despite the provisions of the SMG management contract.

In Wichita, we’re going to have to be watchful. The drumbeats of new taxation have started.

Wichita downtown arena parking promises not fulfilled

In 2004, as residents of Sedgwick County were considering whether to vote for a sales tax to fund the downtown Wichita arena (now known as the Intrust Bank Arena and nearly ready to open), people wondered about parking.

So on a campaign literature piece, the arena supporters made this claim: “With the proposed garage structures, more than 10,000 parking spaces will be available within a three-block radius of the Arena (compared with the Coliseum’s 4,500 spaces.)”

Today, on the eve of the arena’s opening, these parking garages don’t exist.

What about surface parking spaces? According to the draft version of the parking plan submitted to the city council last week, there is “available weekday parking supply at peak of approximately 3,040 spaces within the Arena District.” That district is, approximately, a three-block radius around the arena.

The parking structures promised by arena boosters might be built. The city has approved a TIF district that surrounds the arena, and there is the potential, by my reckoning, to spend around $9 million on parking structures. But at a cost of $20,000 to $25,000 per space, this money buys 450 parking spots at most.

By the way, I learned that the number of parking spaces around the arena is likely to decrease. At least that’s the goal of one of the firms who pitched their planning services to Wichita last week. That’s because if there is development of the area immediately surrounding the arena, there won’t be room for so much parking. Travel by automobile is something to be reduced, according to most of the planners, and we should rely on transit and bicycles instead.

I realize that the arena boosters who put out this information weren’t government officials (although some may have been involved). They put out a few other whoppers, too. It’s too bad that so many citizens believed them.

Goody Clancy proposal for Downtown Wichita revitalization master plan

Last Friday a selection committee selected one company from four finalists to lead the planning effort for the revitalization of downtown Wichita. If some city leaders and a few citizen elites had their way, citizens of Wichita wouldn’t be able to see the company’s proposal document until after the city council makes a decision to follow — or not — the recommendation of the selection committee. But thanks to city manager Robert Layton’s decision, this document is now available for all to read. (Thanks also go to council member Jim Skelton, for his unsuccessful effort to release the documents.)

This proposal is available because I requested it (and paid for it) under the provisions of the Kansas Open Records Act. The Wichita Eagle requested it too, and as of the time I received my copy, only that newspaper and I had requested it (along with the other three proposals from the finalists).

I didn’t scan all the pages, leaving out a section about the personnel involved and an appendix of related articles. Still, there’s 109 pages to read — but there are a lot of pictures. Click on
Goody Clancy Proposal for Downtown Wichita Revitalization Master Plan
to view or print the document.

(Update: The Wichita Eagle has obtained and posted a much better version of the proposal. It’s complete and in color. Click here and here.)

There are danger signs all over this document. Under the heading “Fiscal Responsibility,” for example, we see “Know the full range of effective public-private finance tools at hand.” Which means, of course, that developers will have their hands in the pockets of taxpayers through devices such as TIF districts, grants, tax credits, abatements, and other forms of subsidy.

Another sign: as a challenge to downtown, the document cites “The impact of relatively low development costs (inexpensive land, tenant-borne special assessment districts for infrastructure) at Wichita’s perimeter have a direct impact on Downtown land value and infrastructure economics.” (emphasis added)

What’s wrong with this statement? First, inexpensive land is a good thing. It means more people can afford what they want.

Second, note that people developing on the perimeter pay their own infrastructure costs. This statement hints that downtown developments won’t be expected to pay theirs.

There are just a few hopeful signs: “Indeed, WaterWalk might be struggling to fill its space because it has, simply put, hit a ceiling: it is focusing on food and fun, and perhaps there is room for only one such district (Old Town) in Downtown Wichita. The Arena could help in this regard, but until the publicly subsidized WaterWalk is a rousing success, it might not make sense to split the pie still further.”

Indeed. While we’re at it, let’s etch the names of the developers of WaterWalk on a large monument somewhere downtown, so that they are properly excluded from any further consideration as beneficiaries of the taxpayer. (Here’s the list, in case this monument isn’t built.)

But if there’s not demand for another food and fun district in Wichita, what about the promise of all the food and fun surrounding the Intrust Bank Arena? (A campaign piece from that election reads “It [the arena] will enrich our quality of life as new restaurants, shops and clubs spring up in the area …”)

It’s unknown how seriously the city council will take the steering committee’s recommendation. The council plans to vote on October 13.

Lutz, Hanson, Fahnestock owe Wichita an apology

In the campaign for the sales tax to build the downtown Wichita arena (Intrust Bank Arena), the idea of hosting NCAA men’s basketball games was promoted as something that would happen if voters approved the arena.

This week we learned that for this event, our arena has been rejected for the next three years.

Three arena boosters in particular — Bob Hanson of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission, businessman George Fahnestock, and Wichita Eagle sports columnist Bob Lutz — owe Wichita and Sedgwick County voters an apology.

As it turns out, Lutz was quite the visionary in a June 18, 2004 Wichita Eagle column, in which he wrote: “Imagine our city bidding for an NCAA Tournament subregional or the Big 12 Tournament.”

We don’t have to imagine anymore.

DeBoer plan for Wichita downtown redevelopment largely realized

The following is a lightly edited version of an insightful comment left on this site by an unknown writer, the “Wichitator.” Since many readers don’t read comments, I’ve promoted this to a post.

Hundreds of millions have already been spent for downtown redevelopment and what do we have to show for it? In contrast, look at the benign neglect the city has had on the thriving east and west sides of town where projects on Maize and Webb roads have prospered despite heavy property taxes.

Over 20 years ago the current downtown developer of the languishing East Bank (WaterWalk) project, Jack DeBoer, provided his vision for revitalizing downtown. There was a lot of public discussion about DeBoer’s proposal including front page Wichita Eagle articles at that time. No one in the local news media wants to talk about this now apparently.

Ironically enough, at that time, DeBoer’s plan did not include the struggling East Bank (Waterwalk) project that he is currently involved in. DeBoer’s vision of downtown projects were largely implemented by taxpayers over time.

The largest and most expensive of these projects will be the Intrust Arena with its $200+ million price tag. The only one that has been partially rejected was turning the Keeper of the Plains into a 500 foot community version of a Seattle Sky Needle that one might argue was at least partially implemented when this statue was placed on a much higher pedestal at a more prominent point where the two rivers meet at high cost to city taxpayers.

Lesser downtown projects that were part of DeBoer’s plan and were a lot less expensive than the new arena, were completed years ago. This public infrastructure is now in place at a very expensive cost to taxpayers of the past few decades. Another example, Exploration Place, still has years before its mortgage will be paid off, I believe.

Where has been the return for this community? It is invisible to this taxpayer. Look at the downtown taxing district. It takes in about the same level of property tax revenues as it has always received. It is clear that there is no private sector growth downtown. So tax revenues are stagnant. This publicly funded but privately selected downtown board operates with almost no media oversight. There is some taxpayer subsidized remodeling going on but outside of that, I can only think of the Garvey Center where significant private funds are being spent on a partial remodel of their downtown property.

The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Since the downtown development plans are NOT being made public it looks like we’ll soon have another, 21st century version of the 1980s DeBoer plan that the taxpayers in our community will be expected to fund. In Washington, nothing fails like excess (see GSE’s Fannie & Freddie) and in Wichita we are trying to follow in our federal masters’ footsteps. Since local government can’t print money like the political fools in Washington can through the Federal Reserve Bank, the fiscal chickens will come home to roost a lot more quickly here. Mr. Weeks is right in trying to see the details of these proposals. If we did, the price tag would probably take our collective breaths away. The downtown development folks who want to be the 21st century reincarnation of Mr. DeBoer are just as right in wanting to keep this information hidden.

Light rail not good for Wichita

A recent letter in the Wichita Eagle by Alden Wilner of Bel Aire worries that “flat, dusty and hot” parking lots in the neighborhood of the Intrust Bank Arena (formerly known as the downtown Wichita arena) in downtown Wichita will hamper downtown revitalization.

I don’t know if this claim is true or not, but I do know that the solution Wilner proposes — “an area wide light-rail system” — would be an absolute disaster for Wichita. These systems are costly to build and operate, suffer from low ridership almost everywhere they are built, and have many other problems.

In a recent article, Randal O’Toole presented the costs of light rail versus highways:

The average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as an urban freeway lane-mile. Yet in 2007 the average light-rail line carried less than one-seventh as many people as the average freeway lane-mile in cities with light rail.

Do the math: Light rail costs 14 to 35 times as much to move people as highways.

The Government Accountability Office found that bus-rapid transit—frequent buses with limited stops—provided faster, better service at 2 percent of the capital cost and lower operating costs than light rail.

Light rail is the mantra of those who hate cars. They must love waste and failure in its place. Portland is an example of an area that’s built a lot of light rail in recent years. O’Toole points out that in 1980 — before the light rail building boom — 9.8 percent of the region’s commuters took transit to work. Now that number, despite the light rail building boom, has declined to 7.6 percent.

Another article by O’Toole (Light Rail Doesn’t Work) tells of the huge costs, inconvenience, congestion, misallocation of economic development, and increased energy consumption and greenhouse gas output that light rail projects produce.

O’Toole is the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future. As Wichita prepares to undertake large-scale planning for the revitalization of downtown, I would urge our leaders to read this book.

Wichita downtown arena parking problem

This week the Wichita Eagle printed a letter submitted by Sedgwick County Commissioner Karl Peterjohn. The printed letter is quite a bit shorter than what Peterjohn submitted. The unabridged letter follows.

The Wichita Eagle editorial written by Rhonda Holman on June 29, 2009 now claims that the new Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita lacks adequate parking. This is a major change by the Eagle editorial board’s position. I have repeatedly asked county staff about the available parking in and around this soon-to-open facility since I became a commissioner in January. I have been repeatedly told by county staff that adequate parking will be available when the Intrust Arena opens next year. The most recent public assurance I have received was only a few days ago.

In 2004, while I led the opposition to the proposed downtown arena in my role as the executive director of the Kansas Taxpayers Network, I repeatedly raised the parking availability issue. In 2004 the arena advocates claimed that arena parking would not become a problem and that the critics were wrong.

Voters were repeatedly assured that there was plenty of parking that would be available downtown for the arena. The Wichita Eagle editorial page was among the leading advocates for this project and ignored opponents arguments concerning this $206 million (back then it was described as a $185 million) project. At that time there was only a general area for this new facility’s location so this argument lacked specificity. The exact location was unknown when voters cast their ballots.

The Friday before the 2004 election I held a news conference pointing out the dimensions of the parking problem downtown in particular and the related location and capacity issues in great detail. At this news conference I provided a map of the Kansas Coliseum’s Britt Brown Arena and adjacent parking area available for comparison purposes with the existing 3,500 parking spaces for this 12,000 seat facility along I-135. I still have a few extra copies of this Britt Brown Arena aerial view. Arena proponents attended this 2004 news conference and claimed that the arena opponents concerns were invalid because of existing downtown parking. The Eagle editorial page repeatedly backed these arena proponents’ claims.

The 2004 election is now political history. I want the Intrust Arena to be a success because this project has now become very important to the entire community. The reservations I expressed in 2004 have not disappeared just because of time. The decision to eliminate some of the one-way streets with two-way streets will not be an improvement in traffic flow in my opinion. There will be challenges for people to become comfortable with access into and out of this new facility while participating in high attendance events when the arena opens in a few months. To get beyond this challenge for any new facility, the county staff and parking consultant need to be correct about the adequacy of parking for the Intrust Arena and I believe are working to accomplish this objective.

The empty arena

Kansas City’s Sprint Center (that’s their new downtown arena) is suffering from underuse.

The Atlantic article The Empty Arena tells the story. Its subtitle is “If you build it, they might not come.” Despite being managed by a well-connected and experienced management group, no professional basketball or hockey team has moved in. Here’s bit more:

For now, Kansas City remains cautiously optimistic that the decision to build the Sprint Center was an enlightened one. The taxes that fund it are largely being paid by visitors, after all, and the concerts and NCAA games it has already attracted would have bypassed the old, outdated Kemper Arena. Mayor Mark Funkhouser, formerly the city auditor, had struggled to understand how spending $222 million on an arena made economic sense. “Now that I’ve inherited it,” he says, “I tell people it’s a shotgun wedding, but I have to make the marriage work. And if you look at it just in terms of the performance of the facility itself, it has exceeded expectations. It’s shiny and new. People like it.”

Who paid for the arena? As the snippit above approvingly states, someone else besides the people of Kansas City did. $222 million from hotel and car-rental taxes funded the arena.

In Wichita, the Intrust Bank Arena (formerly known as the downtown Wichita arena), set to open next year, was paid for largely by its own hometown, as it was funded through a sales tax.

The Wichita arena, unlike Kansas City’s, has a tenant, a minor league hockey team. Even though the arena is owned by the citizens of Sedgwick County, details are kept secret from the people.

Sedgwick County keeps lease agreement secret

A few months ago in March, SMG, the company that is managing the Intrust Bank Arena (formerly known as the downtown Wichita arena) signed a lease with the Wichita Thunder Hockey team.

Details of that lease weren’t made available to the public. Not to Sedgwick County Commissioners, either. So the public and even elected government officials don’t know anything about this contract, except for its term of five years.

This strikes me as bad government. The county has a deal with SMG that gives the management company broad latitude in operating the arena, including some profit-and-loss responsibility.

The arena, however, is still taxpayer-owned property. Furthermore, reading the management contract between SMG and Sedgwick County, I can see several ways in which SMG can wrangle free of its obligations. Believe me, the taxpayer is still on the hook.

So I believe we need to know the details of this lease made to the arena’s signature tenant. I made my case, based on my reading of the contract, in my post Wichita downtown arena contract seems to require Sedgwick County approval.

An inquiry sent to Assistant Sedgwick County Manager Ron Holt, the county’s point man for the arena, produced a response (see below) that indicates that the county has no intention of disclosing the terms of this lease agreement. Citizens must simply trust the county.

Part of the problem is that the arena has a competitor in the private sector, the newly-opened Hartman Arena. SMG is justifiably concerned about its contracts with tenants, which it considers proprietary information.

That’s fair enough — if SMG was a private company. But it’s one-half of a public-private partnership. It gets to use an asset valued at roughly $200 million, provided at no charge by the taxpayers of Sedgwick County, to see if it can earn a profit for itself. Our stake in this means we should get a look. The fact that SMG and the county will not disclose means that citizens will always wonder about the details of the deal.

This is especially true when government competes with private industry. Holt is already on record as being opposed to the privately-held Hartman Arena, remarking “overall, it would not be in the best interest of the community.”

Without disclosure, there will always be questions. It would be in the best public relations interest of SMG to agree for public disclosure of the terms of the Wichita Thunder lease.

Thunder – SMG Lease Inquiry

Bob Weeks Inquiry The Thunder – SMG Lease May, 2009 Issue # 1: Since SMG has committed to a contract/lease agreement with the Thunder in which there is a major revenue stream for the facility and with terms greater than one year, does the County have to approve the Thunder contract/lease agreement? Response: No, the County does not have to approve the Thunder contract/lease agreement because it is in the sole discretion of the Contract Administrator whether or not to approve the agreement, and even then such approval cannot be unreasonably withheld. It is important to understand that there are two types of contracts covered by section 2.3 (c) of the agreement—contracts that involve paying money out (Section 2.3 (c) i), and contracts involving a revenue stream for SMG (Section 2.3 (c) ii). Contracts that involve paying money out, such as a contract to provide security for the facility, must be approved in writing by the County if it involves a term beyond the management term of SMG. As will be discussed later, this approval can be a simple letter from the Contract Administrator and such approval cannot be unreasonably withheld. The Thunder agreement involves a revenue stream and Section 2.3 (c) ii provides that “SMG and the County will have joint approval rights (which approval right shall be at each party’s sole discretion, not to be unreasonably withheld) for all major revenue streams that can impact the profitability of any Facility …with terms of greater than one year.” Section 2.1 (d) provides that “to the extent that the approval of the County is required under the terms of this Agreement, the written approval of the Contract Administrator shall constitute the approval of the County,” Under the definitions in Section 1, the “Contract Administrator” is defined as – the senior administrative official of the County as from time to time appointed by the County Manager, or such individual person as may from time to time be authorized in writing by such administrative official to act fro him/her with respect to any or all matters pertaining to this Agreement. So to address the first issue, it is in the discretion of the Contract Administrator whether or not to approve the agreement with the Thunder. This approval could take many forms and could be established by policies within the County Manager’s Office. While the initial review of the Thunder contract/lease agreement was limited to a discussion between the Contract Administrator and the SMG’s General Manager, subsequently a more thorough review by the Contract Administrator and an Assistant County Counselor with the SMG General Manager revealed the following notable provisions of the agreement: 1.) The term of the agreement is for 10 ½ years with provisions to terminate in the event of default by either party. 2.) There is a provision for a base rental that we agree is standard in the market with accelerators for future years based upon established indicators. 3.) There are other provisions in the agreement for revenue to be derived by SMG to cover staffing costs and other maintenance considerations. 4.) There is appropriate insurance coverage to protect the operator of the facility. After such subsequent review it is our opinion that the agreement provides adequate protection for the County for the entire term of the agreement and there is no reasonable basis for exercising our discretion to disapprove the agreement. For future contracts/lease agreements that fall under the conditions of the SMG Agreement as identified above, the Contract Administrator will meet with the SMG General Manager of the INTRUST Bank Arena and review any agreement in order to understand the terms and conditions of the agreement and how this might affect the County’s interest. Issue # 2: How can Sedgwick County give its approval to a contract/lease agreement that SMG will not let the county see (wouldn’t approval in a meaningful way mean that the commissioners and the public can read the contract/lease agreement)? Response: Obviously the County can’t give meaningful approval to a contract that we can’t see, but our agreement with SMG specifically allows us to review any agreement in order to understand the terms and conditions of the agreement and how this might affect the County’s interest. See Section 2.6 (a) (i) which provides:. (i) To the extent that SMG has any confidential or proprietary information that it reasonably believes is a privileged trade secret and/or should not be disclosed to a third party to protect the privileged, confidential and/or proprietary nature of such information, and upon the approval of the Contract Administrator, which shall not be unreasonably withheld, SMG shall not be required hereunder to deliver such information to the County, but instead, will afford the County an opportunity to review such information at the Facility during reasonable business hours and upon reasonable advance notice, or on terms mutually agreed upon by the parties in order to protect the privileged, confidential and/or proprietary nature of such information. As mentioned above, we have had the opportunity to review this agreement with SMG in a meeting with the General Manager of the Intrust Bank Arena. In our negotiations with SMG, we intended to give SMG significant authority to run the business of the new arena as they deem necessary as a means for them to sign off on an agreement that puts the risk of losses solely on them. The only reason we wanted the authority to review/approve long term agreements was for the purpose of making sure that SMG wasn’t putting the County in a bad financial position for years that they might not be operating the arena. While initially this is a five year agreement, we have provisions in the agreement that will automatically extend the agreement for an additional five years if they meet certain performance criteria. In other words, there is no reason at this point in our business dealings to think that SMG is operating in anything but the best interest of SMG and the County and such there would be little reason to formally approve the Thunder agreement – let alone have a reasonable basis to withhold approval. With Hartman Arena and Sprint Center (non SMG operated facilities) as competitors in this market, it is of high importance to SMG of keeping their proprietary information from being disclosed publicly. In addition, the County’s financial interest is protected with a provision in the agreement requiring SMG to maintain a system of bookkeeping adequate for its operations and for the use of our auditors. SMG is furthermore required to give the County’s authorized representative access to such books and records. The County has the right at any time, and from time to time, to audit and/or cause nationally recognized independent auditors to audit all the books of SMG relating to the operating revenues and operating expenses of the arena.

More money to Wichita government

A letter in today’s Wichita Eagle places a lot of faith on things not yet seen, and in things we know don’t work.

“I think it is dumb that people are complaining about the new Intrust Bank Arena. It will bring money and tourists to Wichita, not to mention great entertainment. That means more money brought to our government, and that’s a good thing. — Caleb Beeson, Wichita”

First, since the Intrust Bank Arena is not yet open, it has no track record. We have absolutely no idea how well it will do, financially or otherwise. A lot of people think it’s “dumb” to count chickens before eggs have hatched.

Then, there’s this letter writer’s idea that more money in the hands of government is a “good thing.”

To believe that paying taxes to the government is good requires believing that government spends wisely. There’s little evidence of that.

Perhaps the writer means that when tourists from out of town travel to Wichita and spend money, our local government will be gathering tax revenue from out of our area. Better to tax someone else than ourselves — that’s the underlying message.

These taxes serve to suppress travel to cities that levy them. How does it feel to have a city add 13% to the cost of your hotel room, as I have paid in some cities? Or how do you think travelers feel when a city levies fees and charges that add 26% to the cost of renting a car, as some places do?

Since demand falls with rising prices, these high taxes reduce demand for travel to high-tax cities. Probably worse than that, they leave a bitter aftertaste for those who pay them. Do we want travelers to Wichita to feel that they’ve been soaked by our local taxes? They won’t feel good about coming back again.

Articles of Interest

Education reform, downtown Wichita arena, Kansas smoking ban, downtown developers

Education’s Ground Zero (Nicholas D. Kristof in The New York Times) Describes the efforts of Washington D.C. public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to reform the system. She’s fired one-third of the principals. Kristof reminds us of the importance of teachers: “The reform camp is driven partly by research suggesting that great teachers are far more important to student learning than class size, school resources or anything else. One study suggests that if black kids could get teachers from the profession’s most effective quartile for four years in a row, the achievement gap would disappear.” In Wichita, however, USD 259 is taking the opposite approach.

Intrust Bank Arena management contract unusual, but not necessarily bad (Bill Wilson in the Wichita Eagle) Explores the nature of the arrangement between Sedgwick County and SMG as compared to other arenas. “The bottom line for these officials: Sedgwick County has a good deal with SMG, but has a responsibility to closely monitor the arena’s performance for taxpayers who paid for the building with a sales tax increase.” More coverage of related issues is Wichita downtown arena contract seems to require Sedgwick County approval.

Details of Intrust Bank Arena contract with Thunder are a secret (Bill Wilson in the Wichita Eagle) This is an earlier story, interesting for the confusion it raises or exposes, I’m not sure which. Reported in the story: “The arena’s financial performance would be monitored by the county through what [Sedgwick County assistant manager Ron] Holt characterized as limited records access. But [Sedgwick County Commissioner Gwen] Welshimer said she didn’t know how the county would track the arena’s financial performance. ‘We don’t have any access to their books that I know of,’ she said.” Read the county’s contract with SMG, however, and you learn that SMG will maintain accounting records, have them audited, and give Sedgwick County access to them “upon reasonable advance notice.” Also, the county has the right to audit the records at any time.

Why state smoking ban seems inevitable Rhonda Holman in the Wichita Eagle Editorial Blog) In this post, Wichita Eagle editorialist Rhonda Holman makes explicit the connection between state-paid health care and the state’s interest in controlling behavior: “That’s [passing the statewide smoking ban] the only responsible action the Legislature can take, given the increasing cost burden of smoking-related illnesses on the state …” If the state (that includes the U.S. Federal government) starts taking responsibility for more health care, smoking bans are just the start of state meddling in behavior.

Minnesota Guys ready to start face-lifts of downtown Wichita buildings (Bill Wilson in Wichita Eagle) Real Development starts work on the improvement of facades of some of its buildings. In the article developer Michael Elzufon manages to use the word “iconic” twice. This article doesn’t tell how these improvements are paid for: a confusing arrangement where the city loans money and recoups it in special assessment taxes. A hefty development fee is being paid to the developers, which allows them to profit for fixing up their own buildings. But they’ll pay that back in the form of the special taxes — or will they? It’s hard to tell where the money is going in these agreements. This benefits developers like Elzufon and politicians on the Wichita city council, as if citizens knew what was really going on, they wouldn’t be happy.

Wichita downtown arena contract seems to require Sedgwick County approval

Sedgwick County, owner of the Intrust Bank Arena (the downtown Wichita arena), has a five-year contract with SMG that outsources the management of the arena.

Yesterday, SMG announced a 10.5 year lease with the Wichita Thunder hockey team. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed, and SMG is resisting their release, as explained in Wichita Eagle reporting referred to in my post Wichita downtown arena open records failure.

But this much is clear: SMG has committed to a contract that lasts longer than their contract with the county.

Sedgwick County could choose to renew SMG’s contract, of course. The contract also contains a provision where if the county receives at least $1,700,000 from the profit sharing agreement with SMG, the contract automatically renews.

But it seems like SMG is getting a little ahead of itself.

It also appears that the lease contract SMG made with the Thunder requires approval by Sedgwick County.

The management agreement between Sedgwick County and SMG grants authority to SMG to negotiate contracts without county approval, but there is an exception: “… if any such license, agreement, commitment or contract other than those involving the license, lease or rental of the Facility in the ordinary course has a term that extends beyond the remaining Management Term or, if this Agreement has been renewed, the Renewal Term, such license, agreement, commitment or contract must prior thereto be approved in writing by the County (which approval shall be at the County’s sole discretion, not to be unreasonably withheld) …”

(The management term referred to is five years.)

So it seems that this contract, extending beyond the management term as it does, is subject to Sedgwick County approval.

There’s more from the SMG-Sedgwick County agreement: “SMG and the County will have joint approval rights (which approval right shall be at each party’s sole discretion, not to be unreasonably withheld) for all major revenue streams that can impact the profitability of any Facility, including ticketing, sponsorships, food and beverage, and tenant leases with terms of one year or greater.”

The Thunder is certainly a major revenue stream for the arena. In fact, they’re the anchor tenant. The lease, at 10.5 years, is much longer than the one year mentioned.

So there’s another clause of the contract that seems to indicate that Sedgwick County has approval rights for this lease agreement.

Here’s a question: can Sedgwick County give its approval to a contract that SMG will not let the county see?

Wichita downtown arena open records failure

Yesterday, the company that manages the Intrust Bank Arena (the downtown Wichita arena) announced a lease with the arena’s flagship tenant, the Wichita Thunder hockey team. But we don’t know the details of the lease. Unbelievably, some Sedgwick County Commissioners and managers are okay with that.

The Wichita Eagle article Details of Intrust Bank Arena contract with Thunder are a secret reports the details.

I believe that the Eagle will be successful in pursuing a copy of the lease agreement from SMG (the company managing the arena for Sedgwick County) under the Kansas Open Records Act. Here’s why:

The KORA states that “‘Public agency’ means the state or any political or taxing subdivision of the state or any office, officer, agency or instrumentality thereof, or any other entity receiving or expending and supported in whole or in part by the public funds appropriated by the state or by public funds of any political or taxing subdivision of the state.”

Although immediately next comes an exception, excluding “Any entity solely by reason of payment from public funds for property, goods or services of such entity.”

I believe the exception is meant to prevent a company who, say, sells pencils to the county from being subject to KORA.

But the relationship between SMG and the county is different. Sedgwick County has outsourced the management of the arena to SMG. The county is paying SMG, too. According to the contract, $8,000 per month at this time.

The county and SMG have a broad nondisclosure agreement in their contract, although this can’t override the KORA.

Besides the legalities of this, SMG and Sedgwick County need to find a way where this lease agreement can be made available to the public. I recently obtained a copy of the existing lease agreement between the Thunder and the county in anticipation of comparing it with the new agreement, the one shrouded in secrecy.

If SMG decides to keep this contract secret, it will be a public relations disaster for them.

It’s also a strike against the Sedgwick County managers who negotiated the contract with SMG that contains this provision, and against the commissioners who voted for it. Sedgwick County Commissioner Tim Norton seems to be the prime apologist for the secret contract.

Let’s hope that SMG changes their mind soon and releases the contract.

Wichita downtown arena costs increases start

The Intrust Bank Arena, better known as the downtown Wichita arena, is adding $2 to the cost of a ticket for hockey games once the arena opens. (Cost of tickets at Intrust Bank Arena increased by facility fee, March 5, 2009 Wichita Eagle)

We shouldn’t be surprised at this. Expect more price increases.

Some of the comments left by readers should remind us of the issues surrounding this arena.

“Get over it, you lost the arena vote” wrote one person. I hate it when democracy produces winners and losers. Especially when we’re quarreling over an entertainment facility.

“That’s great! The more people who come downtown, the better.” I wonder what people who have invested in areas other than downtown think when government builds and/or subsidizes attractions that compete with their bars, restaurants, and other businesses?

Arena Seating Upgrade Illustrates Problem

Once we’ve started down this road, it’s hard to turn back. I’m referring to the $1.7 million that the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners approved for upgrades to the seating in the downtown Wichita arena.

Evidently there’s a new type of raised seating that makes for a better audience experience for those seated on the floor.

The problem is that having built the arena, we need to do what we can to see that it earns a profit and doesn’t become a burden to the taxpayers. (I’m aware that there’s a contract with the management company that shields the county from losses. I’m sure that if there are several years of losses, that contract won’t be renewed under those terms.)

Even new commissioner Karl Peterjohn realizes this. The Wichita Eagle story reported “New Commissioner Karl Peterjohn prefaced his affirmative vote by saying that although he opposed the arena before voters approved it, now that it’s being built, he wants it to be the best it can be.”

Evidently some people aren’t satisfied with this. A comment left to the news story interpreted his words to mean “if this fails miserably, I will accept no blame and quickly point fingers. But if it turns out to completely revitalize downtown and be a huge success like I hope it’s not, I’ll gladly take responsibility for it.” The commenter added “What a joke.”

Besides this commenter’s inability to accept victory and move on, some comment writers are terribly confused, one blaming Wichita city government for the mess. The arena is entirely a project of Sedgwick County.

Downtown Wichita Arena Spire. Wow.

Here’s a photograph I took of the spire on the Intrust Bank Arena now under construction in downtown Wichita. You may be excused for confusing it with a non-functional flagpole.

Downtown Wichita Intrust Arena Spire

There was actually a ceremony surrounding the raising of this pole. Here’s what one Wichita Eagle letter-writer thought of the spire and Sedgwick County Commissioners.

Signatures on spire reflect arrogance

How dare our local elected officials write their names on any part of the people’s arena, as the Sedgwick County commissioners did on the downtown arena’s “spire” this week? This is called graffiti, and if anyone else were caught putting this visual garbage on anything, he would be arrested for it, as our officials should be. The arena is not their personal property to deface. I have little doubt they already had grand plans to prominently place their names on the arena, bragging about “their” accomplishment, so writing on the arena was unnecessary as well as improper. This is just one more example of how completely out of touch and arrogant they all are and why they should all be removed from office. I truly believe the future will show the harm they have caused to this community when it comes to the white elephant they refer to as the Intrust Bank Arena.

JIM WILSON
Wichita

Bob Hanson of Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission Speaks to Sedgwick County Commissioners

At the January 21, 2009 meeting of the Board of Sedgwick County Commissioners, Bob Hanson, President/CEO of the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission addressed the commission.

We have to step back and wonder why it’s necessary to occupy the time of the Sedgwick County Commissioners and the people of the county who pay attention to these meetings just so that Mr. Hanson can recite the history of his organization.

Here’s something that Hanson said to the commissioners:

“As you are well aware, we are certainly proud of what’s taken place in the development of the Intrust Bank arena. A big congratulations to all of you, past commissioners, and certainly the staff of Sedgwick county for the leadership you have provided for our community in development of this jewel and huge community project. I know you are aware of the important role the Sports Commission and all of our members played in bringing the arena campaign to fruition.”

I wonder if Hanson is aware that several of the commission members who supported the downtown arena were defeated in their bids for re-election. Their support of the arena played a role in that.

Further, the makeup of the current commission would hardly be favorable to passage of a project like the arena. For Hanson to thank the current members for their support of the arena is laughable.

Mr. Hanson and his organization have agitated for government funding of projects that benefit their special interests. The most notable of these is the downtown Wichita arena. That arena is likely to turn out to be a huge ongoing liability for the taxpayers of Sedgwick County. But the GWASC nibbles at the taxpayer in little ways, too. This year Sedgwick County will contribute $5,000 to the GWASC, just as it has in years past.

Tomorrow’s agenda for the Wichita City Council workshop contains an item titled “Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission 2008 Annual Report.” This will likely be a chance for city council members to be treated to the same presentation the county commissioners sat through. Looking at the city’s budget documents it isn’t possible to tell whether the city contributes to the GWASC. The “search” feature on the city’s website isn’t helpful, either. This lack of transparency is something we need to address.

But I think it’s safe to assume that Mr. Hanson and his organization will be asking the Wichita city council for a contribution. His history of asking taxpayers to support his pet projects — rent seeking is the technical term — is known.

Kansas law requires Wichita to hold another public hearing

Recently, the Wichita city council passed a resolution announcing a public hearing on a TIF district and its project plan. The city then, on the day before the hearing, substantially changed the plan. This change means that the city must hold another public hearing.

Kansas statute 12-1772 says in paragraph (c)(3)(f) that substantial changes to the project plan require a new public hearing. The changes the Wichita city council made less than 24 hours before the public hearing nearly doubled the planned spending. Further, the new spending is of a different character. These are substantial changes that require a new public hearing.

This post on my blog, which was printed as an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle, explains the situation: Wichita TIF Public Hearing Was Bait and Switch.

Others agree that there were changes to the plan. Randy Brown argued for another public hearing (Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing). The Wichita Eagle’s Rhonda Holman noticed the problems with the Wichita city council’s action (The Process Should Be Most Important). Interim Wichita City Manager Scott Moore acknowledges defects in the process (Wichita Public Hearing Action Not Evidence of Leadership).

Citizens can’t have trust and confidence in government when business is conducted this way. This action, along with another high-profile breakdown in the processes at city hall (Wichita City Hall Confusion Leads to Evaporation of Confidence), should chasten the city to move cautiously and with due regard to process and respect for citizens. Holding another public hearing on the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district, would let the city start the process of regaining the trust of its citizens.

Wichita Public Hearing Action Not Evidence of Leadership

In an op-ed piece in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, Interim Wichita City Manager Scott Moore makes the case that “the [Wichita city] council’s Dec. 2 vote demonstrated leadership and an ability to respond decisively to urgent community matters after appropriate public deliberations.” (Scott Moore: TIF Parking Change Showed Leadership, December 15, 2008)

Mr. Moore explains the problems with the public hearing that was held on December 2: “However, because of the holiday closure, the revisions did not reach council members until Monday afternoon, Dec. 1, the day before the public hearing. Better staff follow-up during the holiday break would have provided better public notification.”

The revisions referred to are the addition of up to $10 million in TIF funding for parking. To add some precision to Mr. Moore’s accounting, these revisions appeared on the city’s website sometime after 4:30 p.m. This was on the same day that the first version appeared. If someone fetches a document at noon, should they also have to check again later that day to see if the document has been updated? I didn’t. It appears that Wichita Eagle reporters and other news media didn’t either. Why would they?

As Mr. Moore explains earlier in his piece: “Nonetheless, city staff should have revised all documents appropriately so that the correct items could have been submitted to the council and the media and posted at the Web site www.wichita.gov for the public.” Also: “Although the process could have been conducted more openly …”

Mr. Moore and Wichita Eagle editorial writer Rhonda Holman agree that there were defects in the public hearing. (See The Process Should Be Most Important for analysis.) But Mr. Moore goes farther and actually praises Wichita city leaders for their leadership.

This is not leadership. Leaders own their mistakes and accept their consequences. Mr. Moore acknowledges city officials made mistakes, but he and other city officials and council members will not accept ownership. They will not accept the consequences of their mistakes.

Leadership at the December 2, 2008 meeting would have meant city staff or council members apologizing to the public for the last-minute changes to the plan and the defective notice. Leadership would have required a council member making a motion to delay the public hearing until citizens receive proper notice of the actual contents of the plan. Leadership would have required unanimous consent to this motion.

Except for council member Jim Skelton’s questioning, none of these leadership actions took place. Therefore, I must disagree with Mr. Moore’s characterization of city staff and council members as leaders.

Problems with Open Government in Wichita

On the KPTS television public affairs program Kansas Week yesterday, I spoke about some problems with a public hearing regarding a controversial matter in Wichita.

Related:
Wichita TIF Public Hearing Was Bait and Switch
Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing
Letters to Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission Regarding Downtown Wichita TIF District

Jeff Fluhr’s Decision

At the December 2, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Jeff Fluhr, the new president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation, spoke on behalf of the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district.

Attending the meeting with him were several members of that organization’s board of directors, headed by Joe Johnson of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey Architecture. This board, emblematic of the “good ol’ boy” network, is stocked with those who seek to profit in the halls of government power rather than in the marketplace where consumers rule. It’s easier that way — no pesky consumers with their varied wants and desires.

The problem Mr. Fluhr faces is that in order to lure developers to downtown Wichita, incentives must be offered. Now some on the Wichita city council act as though incentives come at no cost. The proceeds from TIF financing, they say, are used only for infrastructure, as though this is something the city is obliged to provide. But as I show in my post Many Wichita Developers Pay for Infrastructure, market-based developers pay for their infrastructure. The city doesn’t give away much to them.

The TIF developers, they being the political entrepreneurs, are privileged to use their own property taxes to pay for their infrastructure, and for other things, too. This sets up a situation where the city, through its attempts at centralized planning, thwarts the will of the people by forcing Wichitans to subsidize developers who are lured — “incentivized,” as one city council member put it — to develop where politicians want them to.

This sets up a tension. Citizens are starting to realize the reality of the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to the political entrepreneurs, and they don’t like it. They’re starting to realize that public/private partnerships mean the public takes the risk, and the “privates” earn the profits. This is far removed from capitalism, which is what we need to build the wealth of our city. “Crony capitalism” is a better term for the relationship between the TIF district developers and local government officials.

Then there’s the defect in the process surrounding the public hearing before the Wichita city council. As Randy Brown wrote about this meeting: “Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.” Mr. Fluhr needs to decide if he’s on the side of open and transparent government, or whether he’s in favor of crony capitalism and the good ol’ boy network. If he would request that the City of Wichita withdraw this TIF district until a proper public hearing is held, we’d get a good indication of his thinking. Of course, if he doesn’t make such a request, we’ll know just as well.

Finally, Mr. Fluhr stated in his presentation to the Wichita city council: “[The TIF district] will greatly contribute to Wichita’s development as a destination river city, which will in turn enhance the economic vitality of downtown and the community at large.” (emphasis added)

I would ask that Mr. Fluhr and the citizens of Wichita familiarize themselves with the research to the contrary. A number of studies tell us that TIF districts, while good for the subsidized developers, are not a good deal for the city as a whole. As economists Dye and Merriman (see below) found out: “We find evidence that the non-TIF areas of municipalities that use TIF grow no more rapidly, and perhaps more slowly, than similar municipalities that do not use TIF.”

Kenneth A. Kriz: Tax Increment Financing: Its Effect on Local Government Finances
Dye, Richard and David Merriman: Tax Increment Financing: A Tool for Local Economic Development
Dye, Richard and David Merriman: The Effects of Tax Increment Financing on Economic Development
Danny Santivasci: Tax Increment Financing: Private Investment at the Expense of Local Community

Letters to Wichita City Council and Sedgwick County Commission Regarding Downtown Wichita TIF District

John Todd has prepared letters that we hope will influence local governments regarding the downtown Wichita TIF district. One, to the Wichita City Council, asks them to conduct a proper public hearing. A second letter to the Sedgwick County Commissioners asks them to not consider passing this TIF district until Wichita conducts a proper public hearing. A third is a letter to the Wichita Eagle explaining citizens’ concerns.

If you’d like to sign these letters, please contact John Todd at john@johntodd.net. Here’s the one to the Wichita City Council:

Mayor Carl Brewer
Wichita City Council Members
Wichita City Hall
Wichita, Kansas

Subject: Citizens request for a new and open City Council public hearing before implementing the Center City South Redevelopment TIF District, commonly known as the downtown Wichita arena TIF district.

The December 2, 2008 public hearing as conducted by the Wichita City Council concerning the expansion of the Center City South Redevelopment TIF District was not a true and meaningful public hearing. Therefore, we ask that you withdraw the proposal until a proper public hearing can be held before the City Council. This issue needs to be sent to the District Advisory Boards (DAB) for their review. Wichita citizens in general and DAB boards both need all the details and a complete cost analysis for this TIF district scheme.

Let me refer you to Randy Brown’s letter in the Eagle (see “Reopen TIF issue” Dec. 7), referring to Bob Weeks’ letter in the Eagle (see “TIF public hearing was bait and switch” Dec. 5) that hit the nail on the head by saying, “conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy.” Brown further states, “… we (the people) had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue. The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.”

The citizens of this community deserve open, honest, and transparent government. The Wichita City Council needs to hold a new and open public hearing on this issue before proceeding with the implementation of this project.

The Process Should Be Most Important

Rhonda Holman’s editorial from yesterday’s Wichita Eagle (Parking plan finally coming together) contains this paragraph:

A confusing move last week by the Wichita City Council didn’t help build public trust, unfortunately. Without time for public consideration, city leaders added up to $10 million for parking structures to the proposed tax-increment financing plan for the 16-block area around the arena; the council unanimously approved the plan Tuesday. There are good reasons for the council’s action, which simply puts parking in the mix of things that up to $10 million in TIF money can fund in the future along with street improvements, sidewalks, lighting, signage and other basics. But the last-minute handling left much of the public out of the public hearing, raising suspicions that the council sought to slide in the parking dollars under the radar.

Look at the language here: “confusing move … didn’t help build public trust, unfortunately.” “left much of the public out of the public hearing,” “raising suspicions,” “under the radar.”

This type of action is corrosive to the democratic process. I think that Ms. Holman realizes that, but she won’t call for the city council to take the proper action, which would be to hold a proper public hearing. No parking facility — indeed, nothing the city could ever build — is so important that it should be approved through this type of process.

Randy Brown: Reopen Downtown Wichita Arena TIF Public Hearing

In a letter in yesterday’s Wichita Eagle, Randy Brown comments on my recent op-ed piece in the same newspaper. He is senior fellow at the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University, and also the executive director of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government. He’s done a lot to promote openness and transparency in government. His experience as an editorial writer for the Wichita Eagle shows in his use of vividly descriptive language like “under cover of Monday evening’s darkness” and “aggravated assault on its spirit.” I wish I could write like that.

Here’s Randy’s letter:

Reopen TIF issue

I’m fairly well acquainted with Bob Weeks, our extraconservative government watchdog. It’s fair to say that I agree with Weeks no more than one time in every 20 issues. But that one time is crucial to our democracy.

Weeks is dead-on target when he says that conducting the public’s business in secret causes citizens to lose respect for government officials and corrupts the process of democracy (“TIF public hearing was bait and switch,” Dec. 5 Opinion). And that’s what happened when significant 11th-hour changes to the already controversial and questionable tax-increment financing plan for the downtown arena neighborhood were sneaked onto the Wichita City Council’s Tuesday agenda, essentially under cover of Monday evening’s darkness.

This may not have been a technical violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act, but it was an aggravated assault on its spirit. Among other transgressions, we had a mockery of the public hearing process rather than an open and transparent discussion of a contentious public issue.

The Wichita officials involved should publicly apologize, and the issue should be reopened. And this time, the public should be properly notified.

Randy Brown
Executive director
Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government
Wichita

Wichita TIF District Reveals Lack of Confidence

Yesterday, the Wichita Eagle’s Bill Wilson misses the point in his reporting and blogging on business issues.

In his blog post Seed money for downtown’s future, he wrote this: “The Wichita City Council’s decision to approve tax increment financing for the arena neighborhood’s redevelopment was a welcome vote of confidence in the neighborhood’s future.”

In his news story Arena TIF seen as ‘a vote of confidence’, we read the remarks of Jeff Fluhr, the new president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation: “It’s most definitely a vote of confidence in the future of the neighborhood.”

Tell me, if real estate developers require an incentive to do something, what does that tell us about their level of confidence?

It tells me that they have no confidence. They’d rather invest their capital elsewhere, and they’re doing that. It’s only when the city votes to give them money — and that’s what TIF districts do, contrary to Mr. Wilson’s misinformation — can they be “incentivized” to do what they won’t do with their own money.