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To George Kolb, regarding urban renewal in Wichita

To Wichita City Manager George Kolb, Regarding Urban Renewal in Wichita
By Karl Peterjohn, Executive Director Kansas Taxpayers Network

Today, city government plays a large role in this city’s life. The most recent municipal budget is in the neighborhood of $1/2 billion. That massive sum does not seem to be large enough for many of the city leaders since there is now an effort underway to recreate one of the major mistakes of the 20th century: Urban Renewal.

Urban renewal was a major issue in the middle of the 20th century. Cities across the country attempted to improve and revitalize themselves using urban renewal. They wanted to improve their community and remove dilapidated and blighted properties. Despite the best of intentions, urban renewal failed. The failure took a number of forms and was very costly. Minority and low income citizens were hurt badly. Housing costs rose massively while the choices available for low income citizens were reduced. At that time, this was a national program and a significant part of the urban renewal costs were paid for by the federal government. Today, that is not the case. In addition, beneficiaries of urban renewal were often more affluent citizens who positioned themselves to take advantage of this program.

Ironically, much of the city’s land that has been provided for the east bank/Waterwalk redevelopment project in downtown Wichita was originally acquired by the city back in the urban renewal era. Cost figures on what the city paid for this land were not available when I sought that information during the public hearings over the Waterwalk project. It is a sad fact that much of this city owned land simply stagnated economically during the close to half a century that the city has exercised control over this property. In addition, the city’s need to be able to condemn private property by using eminent domain has raised the risk of property owners, diminished property rights, and made this community less competitive by expanding the public sector over the private.

Recently, the city manager and some other local leaders have been looking at establishing another layer of local government by setting up a new redevelopment authority. I heard that you were outspoken in support of this concept at the August meeting at the Hughes Center. This is the first step in recreating urban renewal in Wichita.

The presentation that the city council had June 27, 2006 indicates the close ties between the proposed redevelopment authority in the 21st century that relies upon the 1950’s era K.S.A. 17-4712 et seq. as well as 17-4757 and 12-2904 urban renewal statutes as the legal authority for creating this authority. These statutes indicate that Sedgwick County will also be involved in this new layer of local government too.

What is the city going to do to avoid repeating the numerous and myriad mistakes made roughly a half century ago?

The academic literature (a partial reading list is provided below) is clear in pointing out the mistakes and failures made with the urban renewal efforts half a century ago. A major, but unspecified, increase in taxing authority will be needed to finance this new layer of local government.

As an organization representing taxpayers, we see that the growth of local government is a major burden stifling development locally and statewide. Recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that Kansas is near the bottom of the 50 states in private sector job growth. Adding a new layer of bureaucracy is likely to hurt this community’s economy, not help it.

City Manager Kolb and other proponents for a new “Redevelopment Authority” need to provide a clear road map on how this new governmental body will avoid repeating the very expensive and harmful mistakes made during the urban renewal era from the 1950’s. Citizens of Wichita need to know how this expensive new entity will be paid for. Will the city council want to pay for it with higher property taxes? Or sales taxes? Or some new tax?

Our organization’s position on raising taxes is clear: voters must be able to decide this issue at the ballot box. Let’s not make Wichita worse with more expensive red tape, bureaucracy, and resurrecting urban renewal. There are many ways to improve Wichita, but recreating urban renewal is not one of them.

Urban Renewal Reading List:
1) The Unheavenly City, Edward Banfield.
2) The Federal Bulldozer, A Critical Analysis of Urban Renewal 1949-1962, Martin Anderson.
3) The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs.
4) Race and Economics, Thomas Sowell.
5) The Art of Community, Spencer MacCallum.
6) Beyond the Melting Pot, Nathan Glazer & Daniel Moynihan.
7) The Tyranny of Good Intentions, Paul C. Roberts & Lawrence M. Stratton.

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