Wichita planning puts freedom, prosperity at risk

Remarks to be delivered to the October 13, 2009 meeting of the Wichita City Council.

Mr. Mayor, members of the council,

I’m here today to ask this council to put aside consideration of this proposal. My reasons are not particular to this proposal or planning firm, but rather I am concerned that we believe we have the ability to successfully plan at all.

Here’s just one reason why I’m concerned: Wichita’s favorite method of financing developments is the TIF district. Recognizing this, the Goody Clancy proposal under the heading “Opportunities” mentions “Continue to employ established TIF funding mechanisms.”

But as documented by the Wichita Eagle last year, our city has a poor record of financial performance with TIF districts.

Another reason I’m concerned is that our attempts at downtown redevelopment so far have produced mixed results. In particular, the WaterWalk project in downtown Wichita has so far consumed $41 million in public subsidy, and we have very little to show for it. Shouldn’t we see if we can nurture this project to success before we take on projects that are much larger?

Then there’s the presumption expressed by city leaders that downtown must be revitalized for the sake of our entire city. Several months ago I asked Mr. Williams to supply me with references that provide evidence for the claimed benefit of downtown redevelopment. At first he referred me to the mayor’s vision statement. But with all due respect, Mr. Mayor, your visions and dreams aren’t evidence.

We do have a document that describes what’s been built in several cities. But the mere fact that buildings were built or renovated is not evidence of success. In these descriptions there’s no discussion of the cost, or the public subsidy needed to redevelop these downtowns, and importantly, no discussion of the effect on the entire city.

When we look at the effect of things like TIF districts on an entire city, we find evidence like economists Richard F. Dye and David F. Merriman found. They concluded that yes, development happens in the subsidized TIF district. But it’s often at detriment to the entire city.

Besides TIF districts, I’m also concerned about the use of other public subsidy, including a sales tax that some are talking about. I’m also concerned about the potential for eminent domain abuse. This summer I traveled to Anaheim, California to learn about a redevelopment district where the city decided not to use these techniques. The article Anaheim’s mayor wrote about this planning effort is subtitled “Foundation of Freedom Inspires Urban Growth.”

That’s what I’m really concerned about: freedom.

Why aren’t we satisfied with letting people live where they want to live? Why aren’t we satisfied with letting developers’ capital flow to where they think it finds its most valued use? Why do we think that centralized government planning can do a better job of making decisions and allocating resources than the dispersed knowledge of all the people of Wichita?

Randal O’Toole has written about the impossibility of the planning task. In his book The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future, he writes this about urban planners: “Because they can build a house, planners think they can design an entire urban area.”

He expands on the difficulty of the planning task at length in his book.

These difficulties can be summed up like this: If we think that we can plan the revitalization of downtown Wichita, we ought to heed this quote from Friedrich Hayek’s book The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

Mr. Mayor and members of the council, our efforts at downtown redevelopment have produced mixed results at best. Yet we have a lot of development — commercial and residential — taking place in Wichita. It’s just not happening downtown. Instead, it’s happening where people want it to happen. It’s happening without TIF districts, public subsidy, or the use of eminent domain.

Why can’t we be happy with that?


5 thoughts on “Wichita planning puts freedom, prosperity at risk”

  1. Bob says that development is “happening where people want it to happen.” No, it’s happening where it’s cheapest for large corporations to develop gigantic swaths of land and turn them into big-box discount stores and national chain boutique stores that largely sell crap made overseas.

    Bob continues, “It’s happening without TIF districts, public subsidy, or the use of eminent domain.” Right, but it’s also happening by fiddling with zoning, annexation, and land use statute and policy, all to the benefit of the above-mentioned retailers and developers. It’s still government intervention, just of a kind *you* seem to favor.

    It’s a lot more expensive to redevelop an aging, crumbling downtown area than it is to clear cropland for subdivisions and Walmarts. In a modern American city, though, *both* parts of the community are important to the quality of life enjoyed by all the residents. Do you honestly think Wichita would be able to attract and retain the businesses and labor force of the future if our downtown goes the way of cities like Detroit? As was pointed out at today’s council meeting, you can’t have a healthy community that is rotting at its core.

  2. Downtown is struggling in Wichita. This is despite an almost uncountable number of redevelopment schemes. No one wants to talk about the hundreds of millions that have been “invested” downtown that have yet to stimulate private development downtown.

    There is infrastructure in the form of utilities existing downtown. Yet there is a clear preference by the citizens for peripheral development. Part of this reason might be due to the fact that urban renewal in downtown Wichita made the city the largest property owner in this county. County land records will verify this. The city is not a good landlord or developer.

    No one in the downtown crowd wants to discuss the pathetic East Bank development and its $41 million price tag. That project is a loser in good times and now times are bad. This reminds me of a number of failing “redevelopment projects.”

    Mr. Witt might rant about alleged suburban “subsidies” but the city has created the environment that exists for all development outside of the politically favored and financially subsidized downtown area. That is not a subsidy and Mr. Witt should know better. Mr. Witt will not address Bob Weeks points about eminent domain, tax subsidies, and does not even acknowledge the fact that downtown is now largely covered in TIF districts….that are all losing money according to the city’s budget. Mr. Witt’s digression about Detroit is a red herring. If there is a lesson about Detroit that is useful concerning Wichita, it is due to the way the UAW helped destroy Detroit by literally killing the automotive goose that laid the golden eggs. Let’s stop subsidizing downtown at the expense of the rest of this community. We should have a level playing field for economic development for all parts of this community.

    I will acknowledge that you could stimulate more “redevelopment” downtown by giving more tax dollars to the usual suspects downtown with an increase in property or sales taxes. That’s Wichita’s policy in the last 30 years. Raising the sales tax is more likely to be tried in this environment, but if you are going to do that, why not have the city eliminate all of its property taxes and replace it will a sales tax? The city has about 30 mills on property and I believe that this is about a 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cent sales tax for the same amount of revenue.

    If you really wanted to stimulate economic development, end the property tax. Ditto for the income tax. That’s why the Fair Tax, or taxing consumption instead of assets or income, is gaining momentum around the country. Perhaps that might be common ground for growing Wichita.

  3. I saw Randy Brown on Kansas Week repeat the same ideas that Witt does. It seems that actual elitists and wannabe elitists share the same ideas.

  4. Hi

    I don’t believe that this comment: “Let’s stop subsidizing downtown at the expense of the rest of this community. We should have a level playing field for economic development for all parts of this community.” will ever happen. The “right people” don’t own the NE and West Wichita growth areas. If it were profitable to build up businesses downtown, it would be accomplished in the normal capitalistic methods. Obviously it’s not profitable unless the taxpayers have to pay for it.

    Later

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