Yesterday’s op-ed by Rhonda Holman in The Wichita Eagle reveals a crucial need for a newspaper with at least one conservative voice on its editorial board (Say ‘no’ to naysayers, October 9, 2011). Here are a few ways in which Holman and her newspaper’s editorial section are wrong about downtown Wichita development and a few other issues, and how the op-ed is a disservice to the people of Wichita:
The real world, according to Holman
While Holman cites the “real world” as the need to pour massive subsidy into downtown Wichita, I might ask this question: Why is downtown Wichita such an unattractive investment that lavish subsidy must be heaped upon those who invest there?
Actually, the broader question needs to be asked, as the city often subsidizes development all over town. An example is the new Cabela’s store, an example of “greenfield” development that supposedly sucks away all the money from downtown, and which the elitists despise. In that case the city lent its taxing authority to Cabela’s to be used for its own purposes. A more direct example was when the city granted, through a forgivable loan, $48,000 to The Golf Warehouse, located in a suburban office park.
So what is it about Wichita? Won’t anyone invest in Wichita without subsidy?
It turns out, fortunately, that many do.
In the “real world,” there’s a lot of development going on. It just isn’t always taking place where Holman and other elites think it should be taking place.
Interestingly, when the elites advocate for public funding of their goals, their own actions often belie their true preferences. For example, a lot of development in Wichita is taking place near Holman’s suburban home. Many other supporters of subsidized downtown development don’t live anywhere near downtown — or even in Wichita, in at least two examples.
Why this building?
There’s much more in Holman’s article that deserves discussion. For example, Holman writes: “The Union National Bank building is a prime example: If it could be developed without the use of public tools, it wouldn’t still be empty after 12 years.” Underlying this statement is the assumption that this property should be developed. I don’t know where she and the supporters of subsidized downtown development get these ideas. What is it about this property that gives it priority over other properties in the city or downtown?
If Holman makes the case that this small piece of land deserves massive public spending to support its development, can’t the same argument be made for every other vacant building or empty plot of land in downtown Wichita? We can anticipate that it will be.
Scrutiny, by cheerleaders only
Holman praises the scrutiny that the project has undergone, writing that the project has been “vetted by a public-private evaluation team.” By my reckoning, the committee that performs this function doesn’t have a single member who is skeptical of subsidies for downtown development. Can’t these people tolerate even one person who might voice dissent?
Further, that committee decided to approve the project despite the involvement of David Burk of Marketplace Properties. Holman’s own newspaper reported this last year: “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.”
The development agreement for the current project contains restrictions on the type of behavior that Burk has exhibited in the past. Call it the “Burk clause.”
Election as referendum?
Holman claims that the recent spring city elections were a referendum on downtown, and that subsidized downtown development won. (Here again Holman doesn’t make a distinction between “development” and “subsidized development.”)
But elections are a decidedly poor way to make these decisions. For one thing, policy regarding subsidized downtown development is just one issue that candidates ran on. Voters have to vote for the entire package. They can’t pick and choose among issues, and it’s a reason why we need to leave more economic activity in the realm of markets — where people can pick and choose what they want — rather than turning it over to politics.
Then, there’s the low turnout for these elections. In the past, Holman described the turnout for the spring primary as “depressingly low.” But now — since the results largely fit her ideology — she describes the election is a “referendum.”
Then, there’s this: A recent Rasmussen poll carried the headline: “Just 6% Think Most Politicians Keep Their Campaign Promises.” Elaborating, the pollster explained: “Voters remain overwhelmingly convinced that most politicians won’t keep their campaign promises, but they’re a little less convinced that their elected officials deliberately lie.”
As shown in my reporting of one of the first times two new city council members faced a test, they didn’t fare well at all (Wichita forgivable loan action raises and illustrates issues):
Politically, Wichitans learned today the value of promises or statements made by most candidates while campaigning. Most candidates’ promises along with $3.75 will get you a small cappuccino at Starbucks — if you don’t ask for whipped cream.
Particularly interesting is the inability of politicians to admit they were wrong, or that they made a mistake, or that they were simply uninformed or misinformed when they made a campaign promise or statement. … City council members Clendenin and Meitzner could not bring themselves to admit that their votes today were at odds with their statements made while campaigning. This lack of honesty is one of the reasons that citizens tune out politics, why they have such a cynical attitude towards politicians, and perhaps why voter turnout in city elections is so low.
As one young Wichitan said on her Facebook page after sharing video of the three new council members today, obviously referring to city council district 2’s Pete Meitzner: “How to use your mouth: 1. Campaign under the guise that you are a fiscal conservative. 2. Insert foot.
Finally, there are the out-sized campaign contributions made by those who ask the city council for money. See Wichita City Council campaign contributions and Douglas Place for details on the campaign contributions made by these developers.
One more thing: If Holman is advocating using the results of elections as a measure of city sentiment, why oppose this election, where the ballot question addresses one issue, and there can be no confusion as to what the voters mean?
Holman, as do many downtown supporters, falsely frames the issue. She writes: “To oppose the Ambassador project is, in effect, to oppose downtown redevelopment.” She uses, as does Mayor Carl Brewer, the term “naysayer.” They don’t mean it as a compliment.
What I — and the people I ally myself with — oppose is subsidized development. We oppose this whether it is downtown, suburban, or elsewhere. As it turns out, we can’t even have an honest assessment of the level of public involvement in the current project under consideration. While the City of Wichita employs a very narrow definition of public involvement, a more realistic look shows that the hotel benefits from $15,470,000 in public money to get started, and then $321,499 per year for the first five years, with smaller amounts for 22 years.
Saying no to government intervention doesn’t mean saying no to progress. It does mean saying “no” to the self-serving plans of politicians and bureaucrats and the crony capitalists who seek to profit from political entrepreneurship.
It means saying “no” to Wichita’s political entrepreneurs, who seek to earn profits through government coercion rather than meeting the needs of customers in the marketplace. It means saying “no” to the public-private partnership, where all too often it is the risk that is public and the profit that is private.
So yes, I guess I and Wichita’s other naysayers are saying “no” to a lot of things.
But what we’re saying “yes” to is liberty and freedom. We’re saying “yes” to a civil society that respects the rich diversity of human individuality instead of government planning and bureaucracy. We’re saying “yes” to free people cooperating voluntarily through free markets rather than forced government transfers from taxpayers to politically-favored individuals and programs.
We’re saying “yes” to consumers choosing which businesses in Wichita thrive, rather than politicians on the city council — and their elitist sycophants — choosing. We’re saying “yes” to people making their own choices, rather than government “incentivizing” the behavior it desires through TIF districts and tax abatements, those incentives being paid for by taxpayers.