Tomorrow the Wichita City Council considers yet another layer of business welfare for The Lux, a luxury real estate development in downtown Wichita. This project, despite having already received millions in assistance from taxpayers, is not economically viable, according to city documents.
The Lux has already received the benefit of Industrial Revenue Bonds, the purpose of which, despite their name, is to relieve the Lux from paying property taxes and sales taxes.
If approved for historic preservation tax credits, the Lux could receive several millions in tax credits, which are equivalent to a cash grant. It’s likely to be approved.
These programs and actions result in taxpayers paying for the lifestyle choices of a relative few.
The assistance program the council will consider tomorrow is relatively benign. The city will allow the Lux to tap up to $1.7 million in special assessment financing. The amount owed becomes a lien in the property, and the risk of the city not being paid back is small. But this action puts our city deeper in debt, and that’s a problem.
Additionally, Wichita is taking on risk that the project’s bankers are not willing to take, even though they would also have a claim on the building if it fails. Even if the bank would loan, its interest rate would be higher than what the city charges on special assessment financing. This lower interest rate is likely the real reason for the developers claiming the need for this program.
What’s the matter with Wichita?
We have to wonder why so many projects in downtown Wichita require massive doses of taxpayer subsidy. Here’s what city documents tell us:
“The Office of Urban Development has reviewed the economic (gap) analysis of the project and determined a financial need for incentives exists based on the current market. The project lender, Intrust Bank, has advised that the bank cannot increase the loan amount, leaving a gap in funding sources that is filled by the City’s facade program.”
When the city is willing to fill in financing gaps, you can be sure that gaps will be created.
When other taxpayers have to bear the cost of incentives for the Lux and its owners, other spending and investment is reduced. While the spending on incentives is concentrated and easy to see — there will be groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies to make sure we don’t miss it — the missing spending and investment is dispersed. The missing spending and investment is difficult to see. But it is every bit as real as this project.
In fact, this missing spending and investment is more valuable than government spending on this project. That’s because when people spend and invest on their own, they choose what is most important to them, not what is important to politicians and bureaucrats. This is a special problem in Wichita, where the mayor and city council members have a history of awarding over-priced no-bid contracts to their campaign contributors.
Sometimes these subsidies are justified by the claim that renovating historic buildings is more expensive than new construction. If that’s true, we have to recognize that investing in, or living in, a historic building is a lifestyle choice. The people who make these choices should pay themselves, just like we expect others to pay for the characteristics of the housing they choose. Likewise, building a home with granite kitchen counter tops and marble floors in the bathrooms is more expensive than a plainer home. These premium features are chosen voluntarily by the homeowner, and it is right and just that they alone should pay for them.
We should recognize historic buildings for what they are: a premium feature or amenity whose extra cost should be born solely by those who chose to own them or rent them. There’s no difference between these premium features and choosing to live in a historic building. Those who desire them choose them voluntarily, and should pay their full cost. Forcing everyone to subsidize this choice is wrong. It’s an example of a special interest gone wild. But in Wichita we call this economic development.
I wonder: After the Lux receives its millions in grants in the form of tax credits — which it is quite likely to receive — will it still have a gap at that time?
Fortunately for taxpayers the Lux does not qualify for the facade improvement grant program.