Facade improvement program raises issues in Wichita

An incentive program in Wichita should cause us to question why investment in Wichita is not feasible without subsidy.

At its February 5, 2019 meeting, the Wichita City Council will consider an item regarding economic development in Delano. The owner of a building there has applied for financial assistance under the city’s facade improvement program.

The purpose of the facade improvement program, according to city documents, is to provide “low-cost loans and grants” to help improve the appearance of buildings “located in defined areas needing revitalization, including the City’s core area.”

The matter before the council this week is to accept the petition of the property owner and set February 19, 2019 for the public hearing.

Undoubtedly council members will praise the property owner for deciding to invest in Wichita. I’m glad he is, and it sounds like the project will improve the Delano area. But the need for this item raises a few questions regarding public policy in Wichita that are more important than any single project.

First, city documents state: “The Office of Economic Development has reviewed the economic (‘gap’) analysis of the project and determined there is a financial need for incentives based on the current market.” In other words, the city has determined that this project is not economically feasible unless it receives a government subsidy. Will any council members ask why is it not possible to renovate a building in the core of Wichita without subsidy? What factors in Wichita — specifically Delano — make it impossible to have investment like this without subsidy?

Second: Wichita officials, especially Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell, tell us that the city doesn’t use cash as an economic development incentive. But this proposal includes a cash grant of $30,000. This is not a low-cost loan that must be repaid. Instead, it is an incentive, a gift — and it’s cash.

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