This week there will be two dedication ceremonies for the “Waltzing Waters” display at Wichita’s WaterWalk. One is an invitation-only affair for VIPs, while the other is open to the public. While these events are promoted as celebrations, we might use this opportunity to review the history and impact of this project that has absorbed many millions of taxpayer subsidy with few results.
In 2009 a Wichita Eagle editorial started with this: “Seven years into a project that was supposed to give Wichita a grand gathering place full of shops, restaurants and night spots as well as offices and condos, some City Council members and citizens remain skeptical at best about WaterWalk’s ability to deliver on its big promises. … True, the skepticism to date is richly deserved.”
The editorial went on to report that public investment in this project has risen to $41 million.
In any case, there’s little to show for this investment. Even the proposal for the redevelopment of downtown Wichita from the planning firm Goody Clancy realizes that WaterWalk is a failure:
Indeed, Water Walk 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 Water Walk is a rousing success, it might not make sense to split the pie still further.
After all the public money put into WaterWalk, in order to get anything else, we’ll probably have to give even more. In 2010, in order to build a Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites Hotel at WaterWalk, several subsidies were used, including a $2.5 million cash contribution from the City of Wichita. See Waterwalk hotel deal breaks new ground for Wichita subsidies. Will anything else be built at WaterWalk without similar consideration?
So taxpayers deserve a break and a celebration. Finally, the fountains, purchased in 2008 for $1.6 million, will be working. The entire fountains project cost $3.5 million, says a Wichita city document.
But do VIPs deserve a special celebration? With drinks and hors d’oeuvres, with a desert bar after? Many of these VIPs will be the elected officials and bureaucrats responsible for WaterWalk, a project emblematic of the failure of government planning. Others will be the beneficiaries of Wichita taxpayer subsidies. They should be apologetic, not celebratory. Hopefully the expenses of this event will be borne privately, and not by taxpayers. But that brings up another issue: the pay-to-play environment that exists in Wichita.
With this glaring example of failure of a public-private partnership staring right at us in downtown Wichita, why do we want to plan for more of this? Shouldn’t we at least wait until WaterWalk is finished (if that ever happens) before we go down the path of throwing more public investment into the hands of subsidy-seeking developers?
At minimum, we ought to insist that the developers of the WaterWalk project be excluded from any consideration for further taxpayer subsidy. The WaterWalk development team: Dave Burk, Marketplace Properties, LLC; Jack P. DeBoer, Consolidated Holdings, Inc.; Gregory H. Kossover, Consolidated Holdings, Inc.; David E. Wells, Key Construction, Inc.; and Tom Johnson, CRE, WaterWalk LLC need to recognize their failure and the tremendous amount they have cost the Wichita taxpayer. Some of these parties are no longer involved in WaterWalk, but they harm they caused lingers. Some of these parties have received millions in subsidies from the city since then, including a no-bid construction contract awarded to Key Construction. When that contract was put out to public bid, city taxpayers saved $1.3 million on a $6 million project. See No-bid contracts a problem in Wichita.
Some received a no-interest and low-interest loan from the city to prop up a failing TIF district, and Burk appealed property valuations in a way that caused a tax increment financing district to fall behind.
The Wichita Eagle reported: “Downtown Wichita’s leading developer, David Burk, represented himself as an agent of the city — without the city’s knowledge or consent — to cut his taxes on publicly owned property he leases in the Old Town Cinema Plaza, according to court records and the city attorney. … Officials in the city legal department said that while Burk was within his rights to appeal taxes on another city-supported building in the Cinema Plaza, he did not have authorization to file an appeal on the city-owned parking/retail space he leases. … As for Burk signing documents as the city’s representative, ‘I do have a problem with it,’ said City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, adding that he intends to investigate further.”
In a later story the Eagle reported “A special tax district formed by Wichita to assist in the development of the Old Town cinema project can’t cover its debt payments because the developers — including the city itself — petitioned a state court and got their property taxes reduced, records show. Now, taxpayers could be on the hook for $190,000 that had been projected to have come from within the cinema district.”
Wichita taxpayers should be relieved that at least they’re finally getting something for their investment. Let’s use this time, however, to learn the lessons of WaterWalk and centralized government planning.