Yesterday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council featured a lengthy public hearing for a proposed west-side entertainment development known as Bowllagio. Bowllagio is planned to have a bowling and entertainment center, a boutique hotel, and a restaurant owned by a celebrity television chef.
The developers of this project propose to make use of $13 million in STAR bond financing. STAR bonds are issued for the immediate benefit of the developers, with the sales tax collected in the district used to pay off the bonds. The project also proposes to be a Community Improvement District, which allows an additional two cents per dollar to be collected in sales tax, again for the benefit of the district.
The Kansas STAR bond process calls for several steps: First, a local governing body, like the City of Wichita, must approve the concept and set boundaries for the project. This is what yesterday’s agenda item called for. If approved by the council, the Kansas Secretary of Commerce would examine the project to see if it meets statutory criteria. If the Secretary approves the project, the city is then required to prepare a project plan and hold another public hearing concerning whether to adopt the project plan. The project plan must be passed by a two-thirds supermajority of the council.
One of the elements of the project plan, according to the 2010 Kansas Legislator Briefing Book, is a “marketing study conducted to examine the impact of the special bond project on similar businesses in the projected market area.” The effect of Bowllagio on existing Wichita-area businesses was a major source of concern for both council members and citizens speaking at the public hearing.
Speaking during the public hearing, Ray Baty, who is manager of a Wichita bowling center, said Bowllagio is not a new concept, but rather one that would compete with existing programs already in Wichita. The C.A.T.S. system, a training system promoted by Bowllagio developers, is actually a portable system, Baty said.
He contended that introduction of Bowllagio to the market will not grow the market for bowling, but will further divide the existing market, resulting in a loss of revenue and profit for existing bowling centers. He said that bowling centers lose six percent of their customers each year, a trend that he said is national.
Frank DeSocio, owner of several bowling centers in Wichita, told the council that the bowling training promoted by Bowllagio developers already happens in Wichita at the present. He mentioned five full-time bowling teachers and coaches already working in Wichita bowling centers.
He added that Wichita does very well in obtaining and hosting tournaments, mentioning 17 PBA live televised tournaments that took place in Wichita, 10 regional events, a BPA womens’ open, six intercollegiate championships that were televised live, and numerous Kansas state high school championships.
“Everything the Maxwell Group [developer of Bowllagio] claims they want to do is already being done in Wichita by the current bowling centers,” qualifying that he’s speaking only of the bowling side of the Bowllagio proposal, not the restaurants.
In my remarks to the council, I mentioned that Wichita has had examples of restaurants or other establishments being announced — sometimes by the mayor in his annual state of the city address — but then the development failed to materialize. I expressed concern that we might commit to a large amount of STAR bond financing based on big plans that never advance beyond some small initial stage.
Susan Estes told the council that “this is an extremely profound day” for the City of Wichita. She asked will the city help one business owner over another business owner in the same industry? She said that Bowllagio has some unique aspects, but it is a bowling alley. Its other entertainment features are also available in Wichita. We are using tax money to compete against existing businesses, she said.
In response to a question by a homeowner in the project area, the mayor, indicating he believed he speaks for the council, said the council would not support using eminent domain to remove the homeowner from his home.
During discussion by council members, a subject of controversy was whether approving project boundaries and forwarding the application to the Secretary of Commerce constitutes an endorsement of the project by the City of Wichita. Some council members wanted to pass an ordinance that would establish the boundaries of the district, and then have the Secretary decide whether the project meets the statutory requirements for a STAR bond project. Wichita economic development director Allen Bell mentioned that the council’s endorsement of the project might be a factor the Secretary would consider in determining whether to approve the project.
A question from Council Member Lavonta Williams elicited Bell’s further opinion that the Secretary is “looking for a signal from the council” regarding its support for the project. Lack of local support, he added, would be taken in a “negative way.” Council Member Paul Gray agreed with this assessment.
Vice Mayor Jeff Longwell disagreed, saying that all the Secretary needs is a geographic boundary for the proposed project. He contended that the process starts with setting the boundaries, and that other questions are difficult or impossible to answer without doing this. There are too many unknowns, he added, to give this project a formal endorsement at this time.
Longwell also mentioned a report that showed that the south-central region of Kansas, which includes Wichita, receives fewer state economic development funds, relative to population, than the northeast Kansas region. He said we needed to “equal the playing field.”
Longwell said he didn’t want to put together a package that would harm existing businesses, saying he wouldn’t vote for the project if an independent study showed that result would happen.
Council Member Jim Skelton asked about the property taxes the development would pay. Bell replied that the property taxes should increase by a large amount, as the land is vacant now and is planned to receive $95 million of development. He said that while STAR bonds and Community Improvement District financing is proposed for this development, the plan does not include property tax abatements, industrial revenue bonds, tax increment financing, or any other diversion of property taxes.
Council Member Janet Miller asked if the Kansas STAR bond statutes prohibited adding these other types of incentives to the project. The answer, according to Bell, is that these programs could be added on to this development, as has been done in some Kansas STAR bond districts.
Later Miller referred to the “lack of information to make an education decision about the project.” She wondered why the developers would not spend “one-tenth of one percent of their $50 million dollar investment” ($50,000) to produce the studies that would give the council the information it needs to decide whether to send the project to the Secretary of Commerce with its support.
When City Manager Bob Layton suggested a delay to gather more information from the developers, council members readily agreed. Layton said that city staff will visit with the developers, looking for an approach that will make council members comfortable with proceeding, addressing some of the information needs expressed today.
Due to scheduling, Layton said that this matter would need to appear on next week’s agenda, or there would be a one month delay before it could be considered at a council meeting.
The council voted unanimously to defer the item for one week, and to keep open the public hearing.
An important issue to many council members is the potential harmful affect of Bowllagio on existing businesses, particularly bowling centers. Miller’s suggestion that the developers spend the money to have an independent assessment of this performed is entirely sensible.
But I don’t think a study of that scope can be performed in one week. As it is now, the city will probably rely on information provided by the developers. It must be recognized that they have a $13 million incentive to produce information favorable to their cause. In his remarks, Gray recognized that proof that Bowllagio will not harm existing businesses will not come from “somebody advocating for the project.” It would require a third-party, independent analysis, he said.
As of now, it is difficult to see how information that will satisfy council members can be produced by next week’s meeting.
In my opinion, the local bowling center operators are justifiably concerned that a subsidized competitor will harm their business. They were able to show that many of the purportedly unique aspects of the Bowllagio concept are already available in Wichita, and have been for some time.
Further, it’s not only direct competitors such as bowling centers that we need to be concerned for. Since the development is proposed to include a Mexican restaurant, what will its impact be on existing Mexican restaurants? And not only restaurants offering that cuisine, but all other restaurants?
In a broader sense, a subsidized business competes with all other businesses in the market for employees and other goods and services that all business firms purchase.
Longwell’s contention that we can still “kill” the project at a later date if reports come back showing negative impact on local businesses is, in my opinion, an empty promise. If the Kansas Secretary of Commerce approves this project, it would be very difficult for the council to vote against Wichita receiving $13 million in state tax dollars, especially in light of Longwell’s argument that the Wichita area doesn’t receive nearly enough of this economic development money.
While council members such as Schlapp say they’re in favor of free markets, she and the other council members nearly always vote in favor of intervention in markets. The fact that the city council members have so many questions about the proposal tells us that this plan is, in fact, a form of centralized planning by government.
As I remarked to the council, developments such as this are portrayed as a success story, in that someone has confidence in Wichita because they’re investing here. But I wonder why these people won’t invest in Wichita unless they receive millions in payments or tax forgiveness from the city, county, school board, and/or state.
Aren’t the real heroes in Wichita the people — many of them small business owners — who invest in Wichita without the benefit of TIF districts, tax abatements, STAR bonds, or other forms of subsidy or incentive?
These people, besides facing subsidized competition, additionally have to pay the taxes that make the subsidies to others possible.
Regarding the mayor’s statement that eminent domain will not be supported for this project: Kansas law does not prohibit the use of eminent domain to acquire property in a STAR bond district (K.S.A. 12-17,172).
If the city wants to assure property owners that their property will not be subject to seizure by eminent domain, the city can add language to that effect in the ordinance. With four city council positions — including the mayorship — up for election next spring, it’s possible that a future city council might not be opposed to the use of eminent domain. This change could take place during the time Bowllagio developers are acquiring property. An ordinance would help prevent this from happening.
Similarly, if it is not the intent of the developers to seek additional forms of subsidy such as tax increment financing or property tax abatements, appropriate language could be added to the authorizing ordinance.