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Wichita city protections for ballpark land development

The City of Wichita says it has safeguards built in to the proposed baseball park land development deal.

This week the Wichita City Council will consider a land development deal for land surrounding the new ballpark on the west bank of the Arkansas River downtown. The city assures us that there are safeguards in the deal that protect Wichitans.

We need safeguards. The city is borrowing to pay for the project, and the city expects to collect a lot of money from surrounding development, necessary to pay off the borrowed money. 1

To spur this development, the city plans to sell (about) 4.25 acres of land to the development team for $1 per acre. If the developer does not perform by building commercial space according to a schedule, the city can buy back land at that same price.

This — the buyback of the land — is promoted as security for the city. There are protections, the city tells us. The city also acknowledges that some past deals like WaterWalk have not had the type of protections built in to the ballpark deal.

But really: What is the value of the safeguards in the ballpark land deal?

If the ballpark developers fail (I’d like to name them, but we don’t know anything about them except for one person 2), the city can get its land back. But what then? Who pays the bonds? (Some of the borrowing is in the form of STAR bonds, which are not obligations of the city. But if these bonds went unpaid, it would be a very large and bad blot on the city’s reputation.)

The city says it would hurry to find another developer. But finding reputable developers willing to take over a failed effort might be difficult. Principal and interest must be paid during this time.

This doesn’t seem like much protection.

Walk away from WaterWalk

Critics of city development projects point to WaterWalk as an example of a failed downtown development. Some $41 million of city funds were spent there with few positive results, and with the recent closing of the Gander Mountain store, fortunes are not looking up.

But WaterWalk is different, the city says. In a recent social media town hall, the city stated, “Waterwalk wasn’t the deal we put together nor did it have the safeguards of this project. Waterwalk is not a city owned development.” 3

I guess it depends on the meaning of “we.” True, most city officials weren’t in office at the time of the WaterWalk deal. Accountability belongs to others is the attitude of Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell and others.

But most of the people of Wichita are still here, and still waiting for the city’s promises to be realized.

While the city criticizes the WaterWalk deal for not having safeguards, the protections built in the baseball deal aren’t very strong. And while the city says “WaterWalk is not a city owned development,” neither is the ballpark land development deal. Remember, the city is selling the land.

The protections

In the Wichita city council agenda packet for March 19, 2019, we find this in item IV-1:

City grants the Developer an initial, exclusive right to purchase the Private Development Site for the development of the hospitality, commercial, retail, office and residential uses, as contemplated herein, for $1.00 an acre. This opportunity extends for ninety (90) days after the start of the first full season of the team’s residency in Wichita.

The next point requires the developer to exercise the purchase rights and meet a series of benchmarks, with a first phase of 30,000 square feet of development starting in 2021, with a second phase of 20,000 square starting the following year, and another 15,000 square feet after that.

Then the purported safeguards:

If the Developer fails to Commence Construction on any Phase by the appointed time or fails to complete construction of any Phase of development within the appointed time. The Developer can forestall a default by providing personal guarantees and making the CID and TIF shortfall payments. The Developer will also forfeit any right to any future phase of development. The City may repurchase any unaffected phase property for the original sale price. If the Developer fails to make the shortfall payments, the City may collect on the personal guarantees and exercise all legal remedies.

There is an escape clause:

Developer may provide personal guarantees reasonably satisfactory to the City as security that Developer will make the City whole for the lost revenue stream required to satisfy the state and local STAR bond repayments, CID and TIF District financing pro forma on an annual basis (Shortfall Payments).

As for accepting personal guarantees, we don’t know the identities of the developers, except for majority owner Lou Schwechheimer. 4 We don’t know the size of the share he owns, except the city tells us it is over 50 percent.


Notes

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