Tag Archives: Sharon Fearey

In Wichita, corporate welfare not needed, after all

Last fall the City of Wichita awarded two forms of economic development subsidy to a proposed Save-A-Lot grocery store to be built in the Planeview neighborhood. The developer of the store was able to persuade Wichita economic development officials and city council members that the store could not be built without public assistance. But now a different developer is going ahead with the project — without any of the subsidies Wichita approved, raising questions as to whether the city’s original offer of public assistance was genuine economic development, or just another instance of corporate welfare.

The subsidies approved were in the form of a tax increment financing district (TIF) and a Community Improvement District (CID). Over a period of years, the two forms of subsidy were estimated to be worth $900,000 to the developer.

Kansas law allows affected counties and school districts to veto the formation of a TIF district. The Sedgwick County Commission did just that, and the developer said he would not proceed with the project.

But now, according to Wichita Eagle reporting, a different developer is proceeding with the project, and without subsidy, according to the article. While TIF is not available, it seems the authorizing ordinance for the CID is still in effect, and could be used by the new developer, if desired.

Economic development, or corporate welfare?

That the Planeview Save-A-Lot grocery store is able to proceed, and in a larger and more expensive form than originally proposed, tells us that the arguments of its supporters — that economic development assistance was absolutely required — were not true. Actually, these arguments might have been true in the mind of Rob Snyder, the original developer. Developers who seek public subsidy have a powerful incentive to make the case to local governments that their projects need financial assistance. In this case, Snyder was able to convince Wichita city staff that there was indeed a “gap,” according to city documents, of “approximately $950,000 on a total project cost of over $2,000,000.” In other words, the purported “gap” was nearly half the total project cost.

But in the hands of a different developer, that gap has evaporated, and the project is able to stand on its own without public assistance.

We need to realize that the “gap” analysis performed by the City of Wichita is not thorough. There’s an imbalance of power in the relationship between city officials and developers. As mentioned above, developers have powerful financial motives to present their projects in a way that makes them eligible for public assistance. Government officials want these projects to happen. Economic activity is good for everyone, after all. So the motives of local economic development officials and elected representatives to turn over a lot of rocks — examining deals too closely — is weak. As a result, we’ve seen examples where outsiders brought information to the City of Wichita that would not have been considered otherwise.

In one instance a former Wichita City Council member was unhappy that the Wichita Eagle uncovered negative information about a potential recipient of Wichita public assistance.

Wichita officials and council members need to take a look at their economic development programs and decide whether the city is willing to — and wants to — distinguish between real and valid economic development programs and corporate welfare. In the case of Wichita’s public assistance offer to Rob Snyder’s Save-A-Lot grocery store, recent developments confirm what a few people suspected at the time — it was corporate welfare, plain and simple.

Wichita city council celebrates while others face cuts

It’s reported that the City of Wichita is facing a $6.5 million shortfall. The city’s looking at several ways to reduce costs, including closing police substations during the overnight hours ($148,000), reducing lawn mowing at parks ($100,000), and cutting back on swimming pool hours ($2,000).

Here’s one simple thing the city could do to save money that won’t cause very many people any pain at all: cut back on celebratory luncheons.

On Tuesday April 14, 2009, after the city council meeting, 37 guests lunched at the Hyatt Regency. The total cost of this event to the city, according to the estimate of charges that I asked for, was $1,046.99.

The event was titled “Wichita City Council Changing of the Guard.”

That’s not the total cost of the festivities on that day. A city council meeting was held. It was light on business, but long on sentiment. A video presentation of the highlights of departing council member Sharon Fearey’s tenure was shown. Maybe someone else will want to ask how many hours of city employee time it took to create this video.

Even in good times I don’t think the city should be spending taxpayer funds on celebrations like this. Now the council is asking others to cut, but is spending like this on itself. It’s a mixed message that Wichitans need to remember.

YMCA – Wichita conflict of interest

A local non-profit organization, held in high esteem, seeks to purchase property owned by the City of Wichita. So what’s the problem?

During his State of the City address for 2009, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer revealed his plan for a partnership between the city and the YMCA. So far this partnership has revealed itself in the city’s plan to sell some city-owned land at First and Waco Streets to the YMCA.

Council members Jeff Longwell and Sharon Fearey were appointed to represent the city in negotiations.

The problem is that Longwell is a member of the advisory board for the northwest branch YMCA. This is possibly a conflict of interest. It certainly is the appearance of a conflict of interest, and for that reason, Longwell should step away from the negotiations.

At the same time, the YMCA should request that Longwell be replaced with another council member.

I’m not accusing the YMCA of any wrongdoing.

I’m also not accusing council member Longwell of any wrongdoing.

But I’ve talked to several elected officials and many citizens about this, and only one has thought there wasn’t a problem with this arrangement.

This is especially confounding to me in that I’m sure there is probably no actual conflict of interest — at least as these things go — but its appearance is beyond doubt in the minds of most citizens.

A representative of the YMCA told me that the board Longwell serves on is an advisory board with no decision-making authority.

I asked Longwell if he could understand how people might think there is a conflict of interest, and he said he could appreciate that position. He added that’s why there is more than one city council member representing the city, and, of course, it takes four votes on the council to take any action.

Furthermore, he told me that he was out of town and missed a meeting, so he hasn’t been present at the negotiations.

I’ve talked with several people who have reminded me of the good things the YMCA does for Wichita and the surrounding area.

So why can’t the YMCA and the city conduct these negotiations in a way that eliminates even the slightest whiff of any appearance of a conflict of interest?

People are wondering, especially when it is likely that the land will be sold for much less than what some believe it to be worth.

Prudence Requires Postponement of Wichita TIF District: The Video

Bob Weeks recommends postponing approval of a Wichita TIF district until new procedures are put in place. Plus, a question about future mill levies, with a response from council member Sharon Fearey. The remarks in printed form are at this link: Prudence Requires Postponement of Wichita TIF District.

Sharon Fearey doesn’t appreciate the Wichita Eagle

At the December 16, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, Sharon Fearey expressed her displeasure with reporting done by the Wichita Eagle.

In this clip, she mentions the Wichita Eagle reporting of the history of Grant Gaudreau. Fearey implies that the Eagle knew that he had been removed from the Renaissance Square project over a month ago. But just two weeks ago, Allen Bell, development director for the City of Wichita, referred to Gaudreau as “principal developer.” So Fearey’s accounting of the facts isn’t even close to Bell’s.

Is there a communications breakdown at city hall? It seems obvious.

“Thank You, Wichita Eagle”

Mustering all the sarcasm she can, Sharon Fearey says “Thank you, Wichita Eagle.”

Speaking from the bench at the December 16, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, she’s referring to reporting that newspaper did that uncovered problems in the past of the person referred to as the principal developer of a project.

Wichita city council member Fearey simply does not understand the concerns of the citizens of Wichita. Combined with her tasteless joke a few weeks ago (see Sharon Fearey’s Bad Joke for video), Wichitans can be thankful that term limits are bringing an end to her time on the city council.

I and most of the citizens of Wichita are truly thankful for the reporting the Wichita Eagle has done on this matter.

No Diligence in Wichita City Hall

Rhonda Holman’s Wichita Eagle editorial today (Need vetting of City Hall partners) correctly states that city staff “missed the mark in vetting negotiator Grant Gaudreau.” Or is the proper title “principal developer,” as stated by Wichita’s director of urban development Allen Bell? (See Wichita’s Faulty Due Diligence for video.)

There’s a lot of confusion over this matter, and times like this let us get a closer look at what’s going on in city hall. We can also learn a lot about the attitudes of government officials and city staff. For example, a Wichita Eagle news story reported this:

“Grant was never a big money player in this,” Fearey said. “He’s always just been the person who had time to come to the city and work through things and also knew a lot about who to go to in the city and how to work the system.”

First, note the disparity between Allen Bell’s “principal developer” and Wichita city council member Sharon Fearey’s “never a big money player.” But what’s really troubling is that Fearey acknowledges that there’s a “system” at city hall that someone knows “how to work.” This doesn’t say a lot for openness and transparency in Wichita city government. It also perpetuates the realization that there’s a network of insiders who know how to milk the halls of government power for their own benefit.

Then, the Eagle news story contains this: “[Wichita Mayor Carl] Brewer said he wants to ensure that developers can complete the project in a reasonable time and that there are no other problems.” If our mayor can figure out some way to eliminate the risks that entrepreneurs take, more power to him. If successful, I might consider voting for him, should he decide to run for re-election.

The fact is, however, that real estate development is a tremendously risky endeavor. Entrepreneurs — people with their own money at stake, with their ears to the ground every day and the experience, power, and discretion to alter plans as the situation dictates — are the people best suited to assume and negotiate this risk. Politicians operate in a different environment with a different set of incentives.

Sharon Fearey’s Bad Joke

At the Tuesday December 2, 2008 meeting of the Wichita City Council, a property owner was present. This man, owner of the Nifty Nut House, a popular store for nuts and treats, was in front of the council when council member Sharon Fearey asked this question:

“Do we all get free nuts or anything?”

(Laughter from the council and audience.)

“Just kidding! You can’t buy our vote!”

It’s troubling to me when elected officials think things like this are funny. Why was she even thinking of this? The Nifty Nut House has great products. I was thinking about them as I sat in the audience at this meeting. But why did council member Sharon Fearey think it would be funny to suggest that the council members get free nuts?

Incidents like this are why citizens have a poor attitude towards government and its officials.

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer’s Reformulated TIF Plan Still a Bad Idea

Today the Wichita City Council holds a special meeting to consider a reformulated plan to provide tax increment financing (TIF) for the area surrounding the downtown Wichita arena. It’s still a bad idea.

It appears there are two major changes in the new plan. First, the TIF district is smaller. Second, spending on the district would be 70 percent of the new property taxes — the “increment” — instead of 100 percent.

Why is this plan a bad idea? Why, you may be asking, aren’t I in favor of development and progress in downtown?

To me, there’s a difference between entrepreneurs working in markets and government centralized planning. That’s one of the reasons why I oppose this TIF district. It represents government making plans for us, rather than people deciding themselves what they want. It’s the difference between political entrepreneurs — who work to please elected officials — and market entrepreneurs — who work to please customers.

If it turns out that when people express their preferences freely that they don’t really want much downtown development, that’s okay with me. I, for one, do not feel that I have the superior knowledge needed to tell people where they should go for fun and entertainment. I’d rather let people decide themselves.

I’m not willing to use the blunt tool of government to direct people and their money to where I think it should go. I wouldn’t do that even if I was convinced I was right.

But there are people in Wichita who don’t share my view of free people trading freely in free markets. Mayor Carl Brewer and several city council members — Sharon Fearey and Lavonta Williams being most prominent among them — and quasi-governmental organizations such as the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation feel differently. They feel that they know better than Wichitans do where development should be happening, and they’re willing to use the tools of government to force their vision upon you.

This is what’s happening at this time. This is why Wichitans need to oppose this TIF district.

Other article about TIF districts in Wichita: Do Wichita TIF Districts Create Value?, Downtown Wichita Arena TIF District, Wichita City Council’s Misunderstanding of Tax Increment Financing, Tax Increment Financing in Wichita Benefits Few, Tiff over Wichita TIFs, and Wichita City Manager’s Warning is Too Late.

Wichita Smoking Ban Starts. Sharon Fearey is Excited.

Today, September 4, 2008, marks the first day of the ban on smoking in Wichita. It’s not quite a total ban, and that has some smoking ban supporters upset. In a letter to the Wichita Eagle, anti-smoking activist Cindy Claycomb writes “If you are a supporter of clean indoor air, please do not spend your money in businesses that allow smoking indoors, including smoking rooms. If we continue to spend our money at places that allow smoking indoors, that tells the business owners that we do not care — that we will tolerate secondhand smoke even though we all know the harmful effects.”

Not everyone is upset, though. In the Wichita Eagle article Smoking ban takes effect; for smokers, end of an era, Wichita city council member Sharon Fearey is quoted as “I feel this is an exciting time for the city.” If, like council member Fearey, you appreciate increasing government and bureaucratic management of the lives of Wichitans, you might be excited, too. Those who value liberty and freedom, however, are saddened — even if they aren’t smokers.

Fortunately Ms. Fearey is precluded from running again for her seat on the city council by term limits. The two architects of this smoking ban — Lavonta Williams and Jeff Longwell — can run for election again. The position held by Ms. Williams is up for grabs in the March 2009 primary. Hopefully the citizens of Wichita city council district one will elect someone respectful of property rights, not to mention personal rights.

For more coverage of the smoking issue and why it’s important, these articles will be of interest: It’s Not the Same as Pee In the Swimming Pool, Haze Surrounds Wichita Smoking Ban, Property Rights Should Control Kansas Smoking Decisions, Let Property Rights Rule Wichita Smoking Decisions, Testimony Opposing Kansas Smoking Ban, and No More Smoking Laws, Please.

Tiff over Wichita TIFs

A post titled Keeping TIFs from a public tiff by Wichita Eagle business reporter Bill Wilson on the Eagle’s Business Casual blog reveals his bias in favor of government over individual action and preference.

My post The Wichita Eagle’s Preference For Government documents one such example from the past. In this blog post Mr. Wilson reveals more of this preference and the faulty assumptions that go along with it.

For example, he speaks of the need to “incentivize development.” Incentives are designed to get people to do something they wouldn’t do on their own. That pretty much describes downtown development. I’m sure that Mr. Wilson is aware that there’s lots of development going on in Wichita. It’s just not where politicians such as Wichita mayor Carl Brewer and council member Sharon Fearey want it to be. Add journalists like Mr. Wilson to this list, apparently. The Wichita Eagle editorial board has been on this list for a long time.

There’s nothing magic about downtown. The fact that people, when spending and investing their own funds, overwhelmingly choose to take action somewhere other than downtown is direct evidence of that. How arrogant is it for politicians and bureaucrats to overrule these decisions made freely by people acting in their own best interest?

In a comment, Mr. Wilson states “I have a hard time equating TIF money with a direct government handout …” I would encourage him to read the post Wichita City Council’s Misunderstanding of Tax Increment Financing, in which the author explains how TIF financing is, in fact, a direct subsidy to developers. I would be interested to see if Mr. Wilson can develop a refutation to this argument.

Mr. Wilson also writes of the need for “proper analysis and monitoring” of TIF district proposals. But government is ill-suited for either task. Politicians and government bureaucrats face a different set of incentives from private developers. Politicians seek to please their campaign contributers so they can be re-elected. Bureaucrats seek to preserve their own jobs and increase their domain of influence and power.

Market entrepreneurs, however, are directly accountable to their customers through the profit and loss system. If they do a good job anticipating what customers want, and if they are able to efficiently deliver what customers want, they’ll earn a profit. If not, they either change or go out of business.

Politicians and bureaucrats do not face such a stern taskmaster. When their decisions turn out to be faulty, the usual response is to pour more money into something that should be allowed to die. An example is the Old Town Warren Theater.

What Wichita Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey Doesn’t Understand

In a Wichita Eagle article City tax districts aren’t breaking even we find this whopper of a quote:

Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey likened the situation to what would happen if she put a swimming pool in her yard.

“I’d probably actually lose money, but for the years that I’ve had that swimming pool, I’d have a quality of life I couldn’t get without it,” she said.

Evidently Ms. Fearey does not understand the difference between making a free choice to spend one’s own money (the swimming pool in her backyard) with government taxation to pay for decisions politicians and bureaucrats make for us. Despite the reservations we express.

Perhaps my headline is a little too harsh. Which is it:

Vice Mayor Fearey doesn’t draw a distinction between people making free choices and government action, or

Vice Mayor Fearey understands the difference between people making free choices and government action, but also knows that her judgment is superior to that of ordinary Wichitans.

What do you think?

Government Art in Wichita

Do we really want government art in Wichita?

David Boaz, in his recent book The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, The Right and Threats to Our Liberties writes this in a chapter titled “The Separation of Art and State”:

It is precisely because art has power, because it deals with basic human truths, that it must be kept separate from government. Government, as I noted earlier, involves the organization of coercion. In a free society coercion should be reserved only for such essential functions of government as protecting rights and punishing criminals. People should not be forced to contribute money to artistic endeavors that they may not approve, nor should artists be forced to trim their sails to meet government standards.

Government funding of anything involves government control. That insight, of course, is part of our folk wisdom: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” “Who takes the king’s shilling sings the king’s song.”

When I read Rhonda Holman’s editorial City can be proud of its arts work in the July 15, 2008 Wichita Eagle, which starts with the stirring reminder that “The arts fire the mind and feed the heart” I thought that perhaps she was going to call for less government involvement in the arts. Anything so important to man’s nature surely, I thought she would agree, should not be placed in the hands of government.

But my hopes were not realized, because soon she described the City of Wichita’s commitment to permanent spending on arts as “a bold and even brave investment in quality of life.” It appears that even the yearnings of our hearts and minds are subject to government management and investment.

“Government art.” Is this not a sterling example of an oxymoron? Must government weasel its way into every aspect of our lives?

And what about the “investment” in art, which Ms. Holman claims helps “drive the economy” through its economic impact and job creation? She, and Wichita City Council member Sharon Fearey rely on a study from 2007, which I discuss in Economic Fallacy Supports Arts in Wichita. This study tells of the fabulous returns on investment by governments when they invest in the arts. Like most studies of its type, however, it focuses only on the benefits without considering secondary consequences or how these benefits are paid for. Henry Hazlitt, in his masterful book Economics in One Lesson explains:

While every group has certain economic interests identical with those of all groups, every group has also, as we shall see, interests antagonistic to those of all other groups. While certain public policies would in the long run benefit everybody, other policies would benefit one group only at the expense of all other groups. The group that would benefit by such policies, having such a direct interest in them, will argue for them plausibly and persistently. It will hire the best buyable minds to devote their whole time to presenting its case. And it will finally either convince the general public that its case is sound, or so befuddle it that clear thinking on the subject becomes next to impossible.

It is, as Hazlitt terms it, “the special pleading of selfish interests” that drive much of the desire for government spending on the arts. Either that or elitism. Do newspaper editorialists and city council members believe that the people of Wichita can choose for themselves the art they want to enjoy, and then acquire it themselves? Evidently not, as the City of Wichita government has its Division of Arts & Cultural Services.

(The material by David Boaz is from a speech which may be read here: The Separation of Art and State.)

In Wichita, is Economic Development Proven Public Policy?

In a statement read by Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer and released on the city’s website at Mayor Brewer Warren Theatre [sic] Statement, the mayor states “Economic development is proven public policy.” The word “proven” was used several other times in the statement.

(I don’t know who wrote the title to the statement, but it combines the mayor’s name with theater developer Bill Warren’s name in a way that is, I am sure, unintentionally humorous. Mayor Brewer Warren? Who is he?)

The Warren Theater economic development project is one example of economic development that has proven not to work, despite the mayor’s claims.

But that is only my opinion. The definition of success, I realize, could mean different things to different people. To me, I would expect that once a development is given a huge head start with millions of dollars in subsidy provided through tax increment financing, that after a few years it would at least be breaking even. Certainly, I would hope — and I think the people of Wichita agree — that the project does not become a continual drain on the resources of the people of Wichita, as the Old Town Warren Theater has become.

But it appears that Mayor Brewer and council member Sharon Fearey have a different definition of success. To them, tax increment financing is not a subsidy to a developer. It’s an investment by the city. All it’s used for, according to Fearey, is to pay bonds: “Under a TIF, the additional property taxes generated by new development are used to repay bonds. No dollars go to private developers.” (Sharon Fearey: Warren loan is an investment in future, July 1, 2008 Wichita Eagle)

Ms. Fearey, may I ask this question: the proceeds from the bonds that were issued: how are they spent?

An interest-free or reduced-interest loan is not a subsidy according to the mayor, it’s “targeted economic development.” It’s a “public-private partnership.” Without it, our taxpayer dollars would not be protected.

John Todd tells me that there is a groundswell of resentment building in Wichita over this loan. I hope that in the coming months this increased interest in the economic development activities of the Wichita city government leads to more discussion of what path we want to pursue in Wichita. Do we want more private initiative and entrepreneurship, or do we want more politicians and bureaucrats?

Let property rights rule Wichita smoking decisions

A system of absolute respect for private property rights is the best way to handle smoking, as it is with all issues. The owners of bars and restaurants have, and should continue to have, the absolute right to permit or deny smoking on their property.

Not everyone agrees with this simple truth. Charlie Claycomb, co-chair of the Tobacco Free Wichita coalition, asks in The Wichita Eagle why clean air is not a right when smoking is a right. The answer is that both clean air and smoking are rights that people may enjoy, as they wish, on their own property. When on the property of others, you may enjoy the rights that the property owner has decided on.

It’s not like the supposed right to breathe clean air while dining or drinking on someone else’s property is being violated surreptitiously. Most people can quickly sense upon entering a bar or restaurant whether people are smoking. If you do not want to be around cigarette smoke, all you have to do is leave. That’s what I do. It is that simple. No government regulation is needed: just leave. If you wish, tell the manager or owner why you are leaving. That may persuade the owner of the property to make a decision in your favor.

Employees may make the same decision. There are plenty of smoke-free places for people to work if they don’t want to be around smoke.

Some think that if they leave a restaurant or bar because it is smoky, then they have lost their “right” to be in that establishment. But no one has an absolute right to be on someone else’s private property, much less to be on that property under conditions that they — not the property owner — dictate.

Property rights, then, are the way to solve disputes over smoking vs. clean air in a way that respects individual freedom and liberty. Under property rights, owners will decide to allow or prohibit smoking as they best see fit, to meet the needs of their current customers, or the customers they want to attract.

A property rights-based system is greatly preferable to government mandate. Without property rights, decisions are made for spurious reasons. For example, debate often includes statements such as “I’m a non-smoker and I think that …” or “I’m a smoker and …” These statements presuppose that the personal habits or preferences of the speaker make their argument persuasive.

Decision-making based on personal characteristics, preferences, or group-membership happens often in politics. Wichita City Council member Jim Skelton, evidently once a smoker and opposed to smoking bans, is now receptive to bans since he quit smoking. Mr. Skelton, I ask you for this courtesy: would you please publish a list of the things you now take pleasure in, so that if you decide to quit them in the future, I shall have time to prepare myself for their banning?

Lack of respect for property rights allows decisions to be made by people other than the owners of the property. In the case of a smoking ban, the decision can severely harm the value of property like bars or restaurants that caters to smokers. This matters little to smoking ban supporters like Wichita Vice Mayor Sharon Fearey. But we should not be surprised, as her record indicates she has little respect for private property.

By respecting property rights, we can have smoking and non-smoking establishments. Property owners will decide what is in their own and their customers’ interests. Both groups, smokers and nonsmokers, can have what they want. With a government mandate, one group wins at the expense of the rights of many others.

Resurrecting urban renewal in Wichita?

Thank you to John Todd for this excellent article.


Resurrecting Urban Renewal in Wichita?
By John Todd

On August 22, 2006, the City of Wichita hosted a Visioneering Committee “Public Forum on Community Revitalization” featuring Mr. Richard Baron, Chairman and CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar (MBS) of St. Louis, Missouri in the Sudermann Commons Room at the Wichita State University Hughes Metropolitan Complex. An August 14, 2006 letter from City Manager George Kolb explains, “This forum is part of the City’s commitment to and participation in a prisoner reentry initiative to help transform not only the lives of returning ex-offenders, but also to transform the communities/neighborhoods into which they will return.”

Mr. Baron’s PowerPoint presentation had little to do with “prisoner reentry” into communities/neighborhoods, but rather the “evolution” of public housing from the failed government housing projects of the past in larger cities like St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles into the new “public-private” partnership housing projects that rely almost exclusively on loans/grants from local, state, and the federal government as well as national and local foundation support.

Council Members Carl Brewer and Sharon Fearey toured several of Mr. Baron’s MBS developments in St. Louis, were sold on what he was doing, so they invited him to Wichita for the tonight’s presentation.

Mr. Baron’s presentation explained how his company, working with government, and government money, was able to raze and rehabilitate failed government housing projects of the past that usually included city owned land and additional assembled “tax foreclosure” properties into a “mixed-income” MBS rental housing apartment units project that always included a public neighborhood K through 8 elementary school, a common swimming pool, park area, and a sprinkling of privately owned housing units. Mr. Baron indicated that his company transformed failed gang, drug, and crime infested public housing projects occupied by people with average annual income of $6,000 to “mixed-income” housing units with incomes ranging from around 35% under $10,000, with another estimated 35% from $10,000 to $30,000 and the balance above those numbers with around 1% over $100,000 per year. His company collected market rents through HUD’s Section 8 rental subsidy program. In response to a question, he said that about 40% of the total rents collected from the project came from the Section 8 subsidy. Mr. Baron indicated that most of his projects were on tracts of around 40 acres.

The public forum was held from 6-8 p.m. in Sudermann Commons Room was attended by I would estimate over 100 people including, Mayor Carlos Mayans, City Council Members, Carl Brewer, Sharon Fearey, and Bob Martz, County Commissioners Tim Norton and David Unruh, City Manager George Kolb, County Manager Bill Buchannan, a couple of state legislators along with heavy attendance from government housing staff members along with staff members from several governmental agencies and members of several Wichita Neighborhood organizations. There appeared to be widespread crowd enthusiasm and support for Mr. Baron’s presentation. However, I regrettably have to say that I think those people more closely associated with government and local neighborhood associations failed to see through Mr. Baron’s super smooth “sales” presentation. He was given over an hour of time to tout his company’s success in assembling this “new” type of “public-private” housing project that involved massive amounts of taxpayer subsidy with the implication that the key to the success of these projects was his company’s ownership and management of the projects. During questioning he did finally admit that government played a key role in the condemnation and taking of private property for his projects through their eminent domain powers.

Following Mr. Baron’s presentation, City Manager George Kolb spoke glowingly and enthusiastically to the group about the City’s plans to revitalize the Beat 44 neighborhood in northeast Wichita. At this point, Mr. Kolb failed to mention a private partner in his vision for Beat 44 revitalization, but rather a city-run project. No mention as to whether the project needed at least 40 acres to succeed, and how many houses would be razed for the cities project. Mr. Kolb indicated that the Beat 44 project would be a “model” for other city housing revitalization projects. Mr. Kolb did hint of “public takings” if needed to clean up the area, and he admitted to me after the meeting that he was a strong supporter of the City’s ability to use of its eminent domain power in those takings.

I find it interesting to note that The Wichita Eagle has already started their support for the City’s neighborhood revitalization program with their recent front-page “blight” story. Earlier this year they printed an opinion letter from City Manager Kolb imploring the legislature to “either defeat the proposed (eminent domain) legislation or find a compromise that honors the tradition of eminent domain.” In that same April 9, 2006 newspaper, the editorial board agreed with the City Manager, “…it is important for the city to preserve its condemnation authority, which could be threatened by legislative efforts to curtail the use of eminent domain.” Since Mr. Kolb and the editorial staff have so little regard for private property protection, I wonder if the newspaper would have any problem with a city ordinance that would from time to time limit the Eagle’s freedom of the press in cases where a reporter was writing unfavorable articles about the City of Wichita that were having a “detrimental” impact on the collective “economic well being” of this community. Surely, the collective health of this community outweighs one individual reporter’s freedom to write anything in the newspaper that is not in the community’s best interest. This argument sounds like the same rational the newspaper uses to justify the taking of private property from an individual for the collective good of the community. Perhaps Mr. Kolb can convince the City Council to pass such an ordinance with the understanding that we can “trust” the city to use its power to curb the free press sparingly and city officials will always exercise “good judgment” in their use of this power. The Kansas League of Municipalities used this same “trust” argument before a legislative committee last spring in their efforts to stop the legislature from passing needed private property protection through meaningful eminent domain reform.

In deference to Mr. Baron’s approach to the new public housing projects his company is involved in, the key to his company’s financial success appears to me to be their ability to gather “public” money and then apply “private” ownership and management skills with an interest in their companies bottom line “profit.” Judging from the PowerPoint presentation, his company appears to be applying sound business skills that are necessary for a project to be financially successful. I hear that our City Manager Mr. Kolb is working to form a “Housing Authority” with limited supervision by the City Council. Kolb will be the leader of the group that owns and manages the new housing development that is being proposed in the Beat 44 neighborhood. The lack of the “profit” motive with the inherent lack personal financial “risks” makes me suspect of the ability of the new “Housing Authority” to be successful in their so-called housing revitalization. This proposal resurrects the failed urban renewal policies of the 1950′s and 1960′s.

There are several questions that I have been unable to obtain answers for after several attempts in calling Mr. Baron’s office. How are the housing projects titled? Private company? Public entity? Public-private partnership ownership entity? Non-profit entity? And, does the project pay property taxes? Have TIF’s (Tax increment financing) been used?

Local economic development in Wichita

Writing from Memphis, Tennessee

Today’s Wichita Eagle (November 5, 2005) tells us of a new economic development package that our local governments have given to induce a call center to locate in Wichita. The deal is described as “one of the biggest the two-year-old economic development coalition [Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition] has landed.”

There is an interesting academic paper titled “The Failures of Economic Development Incentives,” published in Journal of the American Planning Association, and which can be read here: www.planning.org/japa/pdf/04winterecondev.pdf. A few quotes from the study:

Given the weak effects of incentives on the location choices of businesses at the interstate level, state governments and their local governments in the aggregate probably lose far more revenue, by cutting taxes to firms that would have located in that state anyway than they gain from the few firms induced to change location.

On the three major questions — Do economic development incentives create new jobs? Are those jobs taken by targeted populations in targeted places? Are incentives, at worst, only moderately revenue negative? — traditional economic development incentives do not fare well. It is possible that incentives do induce significant new growth, that the beneficiaries of that growth are mainly those who have greatest difficulty in the labor market, and that both states and local governments benefit fiscally from that growth. But after decades of policy experimentation and literally hundreds of scholarly studies, none of these claims is clearly substantiated. Indeed, as we have argued in this article, there is a good chance that all of these claims are false.

The most fundamental problem is that many public officials appear to believe that they can influence the course of their state or local economies through incentives and subsidies to a degree far beyond anything supported by even the most optimistic evidence. We need to begin by lowering their expectations about their ability to micromanage economic growth and making the case for a more sensible view of the role of government — providing the foundations for growth through sound fiscal practices, quality public infrastructure, and good education systems — and then letting the economy take care of itself.

On the surface of things, to the average person, it would seem that spending to attract new businesses makes a lot of sense. It’s a win-win deal, backers say. Everyone benefits. This is why it appeals so to politicians. It lets them trumpet their achievements doing something that no one should reasonably disagree with. After all, who could be against jobs and prosperity? But the evidence that these schemes work is lacking, as this article shows.

Close to Wichita we have the town of Lawrence, which has recently realized that it as been, well, bamboozled? A September 29, 2005 Lawrence Journal-World article (“Firms must earn tax incentives”) tell us: “Even with these generous standards for compliance, to have 13 out of 17 partnerships fail [to live up to promised economic activity levels] indicates that the city has received poor guidance in its economic development activities.” Further: “The most disconcerting fact is that Lawrence would probably have gained nearly all of the jobs generated by these firms without giving away wasteful tax breaks.”

On November 6, 2005, an article in the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader said this:

The Herald-Leader’s investigation, based on a review of more than 15,000 pages of documents and interviews with more than 100 people, reveals a pattern of government giveaways that, all too often, ends in lost jobs, abandoned factories and broken promises.

The investigation shows:

Companies that received incentives often did not live up to their promises. In a 10-year period the paper analyzed, at least one in four companies that received assistance from the state’s main cash-grant program did not create the number of jobs projected.

A tax-incentive program specifically for counties with high unemployment has had little effect in many of those areas. One in five manufacturing companies that received the tax break has since closed.

There is spotty oversight of state tax incentives. The state sometimes does not attempt to recover incentives, even when companies don’t create jobs as required.

Unlike some other states, Kentucky makes little information about incentives public. The Cabinet for Economic Development refuses to release much of the information about its dealings with businesses, citing proprietary concerns. The cabinet has never studied its programs’ effectiveness, and it blocked a legislative committee’s effort to do so.

The Herald-Leader’s examination of Kentucky’s business-incentive programs comes when, nationally, questions are mounting about the effectiveness and legality of expensive government job-creation efforts. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide by spring whether trading tax breaks for jobs is legal or whether they amount to discrimination against other companies.

Meanwhile, states continue engaging in costly economic battles for new jobs, even though research strongly suggests that few business subsidies actually influence where a company sets up shop.

We might want to be optimistic and hope that our local Wichita and Sedgwick County leaders are smarter than those in Lawrence and Lexington. Evidence shows us, however, that this probably isn’t the case. Our own local Wichita City Council members have shown that they aren’t familiar with even the most basic facts about our economic development programs. How do we know this? Consider the article titled “Tax break triggers call for reform” published in the Wichita Eagle on August 1, 2004:

Public controversy over the Genesis bond has exposed some glaring flaws in the process used to review industrial revenue bonds and accompanying tax breaks.

For example, on July 13, Mayans and council members Sharon Fearey, Carl Brewer, Bob Martz and Paul Gray voted in favor of granting Genesis $11.8 million in industrial revenue bond financing for its expansion, along with a 50 percent break on property taxes worth $1.7 million.

They all said they didn’t know that, with that vote, they were also approving a sales tax exemption, estimated by Genesis to be worth about $375,000.

It is not like the sales tax exemption that accompanies industrial revenue bonds is a secret. An easily accessible web page on the City of Wichita’s web site explains it.

But perhaps there is hope. The Wichita Business Journal has recently reported this: “The city and county are getting $2 back for every dollar they spent over the past 18 months on economic development incentives, according to an analysis of GWEDC-supplied data. The report was presented at Thursday’s GWEDC investor luncheon at the Hyatt Regency by Janet Harrah, director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.” Personally, I am skeptical. I have asked to see these figures and how they are calculated, but I have not been able to obtain them.