Two hours of public comment didn’t change the outcome of the Wichita City Council’s vote on a deal to sell land around the new baseball stadium for private development.
Council members voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve an agreement with Wichita Riverfront LP, a group that includes owners of the baseball team and undisclosed local developers.
Under the agreement, the city will sell a little more than 4 acres of land between Maple and Douglas for $1 an acre. The city will also redesign and reconstruct McLean Boulevard into a pedestrian friendly, two-lane street.
The vote was held during a rare evening meeting for the council, which normally holds its Tuesday meetings at 9 a.m. The city changed the time to allow more residents to attend in response to public criticism over a lack of transparency surrounding the project; the land agreement was only made public earlier this month.
“One of the main reasons we’re here at 6 o’clock is transparency,” said resident Doug Ballard. “The reason we’re here is because here it is the 11th hour, two minutes till 12, and we’re just now finding out enough details to make us sort of, kind of, happy.”
Development rights for the area around the stadium were one of the team’s requirements to move from New Orleans to Wichita. The city is also offering the group almost 3 acres north of the Drury Hotel on the other side of the river at a cost of $1 million.
The agreement with Wichita Riverfront LP was the “third leg of the stool” for the city’s deal to bring affiliated baseball back to Wichita, said Assistant City Manager Scot Rigby. The council already approved a ballpark development agreement and a facilities use management agreement late last year.
New Orleans Babycakes owner Lou Schwechheimer said the three agreements were negotiated on “parallel tracks.”
“The land is virtually an extension of the ballpark," he said.
The $77 million stadium project — as well as additional infrastructure and improvement work along the river — is being funded largely by three streams: a Tax Increment Finance, or TIF, district; an added 2 percent sales tax within a Community Improvement District; and STAR bonds, which will capture additional sales tax revenue raised in the area.
The city also expects to issue general obligation bonds to pay for the project.
A separate development is planned for the area just north of the stadium. Wichita developer George Laham presented to the council his renderings for what he calls "Riverfront Village,” which would feature retail and office space, residences and a boutique hotel.
He said like Bradley Fair in east Wichita, the stadium development would progress as needed. He’s planning between 35,000 and 50,000 square feet in the first phase.
“We’re going to build this only as there is demand,” he said.
Some residents raised comparisons to the failed WaterWalk project across the river, which also promised to be a destination for entertainment.
Jim Garvey, former owner of the Garvey Center in downtown Wichita, questioned whether the new riverfront project would generate enough tax revenue to pay off stadium debt. He estimated rent will be $40 a foot in those spaces, compared to $10 a foot in other shops along Douglas in Delano.
“How realistic is it that those are going to pay the STAR bonds and you’re not going to put it on us, the taxpayer?” he said.
John Todd, a political activist and retired real estate developer, said his biggest problem with the city “playing real estate developer” is that council members have “no skin in the game."
“So if something fails, basically, you pay no price for being wrong.”
Danielle Saunders said she worked at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium and conceded that it needed to be torn down. But she said the land there is worth more than the city’s $1-an-acre price tag.
“My concern with this new plan is that it’s not open to other investors and developers, some of those who have helped us build the city of Wichita,” she said. “Let’s start with just getting baseball here. Let’s hold off on the land contract right now.
“If Baseball 2020 and Lou really love our city, then they will come here whether or not we sell our property for a dollar an acre.”
Council member James Clendenin defended the city’s decision to offer the land to new team. He said the city is giving developers about $800,000 in exchange for millions of dollars in investments.
“Normally when we have developers come from out of town, they want millions upon millions upon millions of dollars in incentives,” he said. “We’re really talking around $800,000 that we are incentivizing this team to move their Triple A franchise here. Not millions of general obligation taxpayer dollars.”
The city projects the TIF, CID and STAR Bonds, plus naming rights, will generate about $38 million over the next 20 years to pay for the stadium.
City Manager Robert Layton said the city is still in the process of platting the property included in the development agreement. He did express regret that the city wasn’t more open about the deal earlier.
“There’s no way that we could have shared all of the details because it’s just like any other economic development project,” Layton said. “But the community should have known that the third part of all of this was private development, and that was one of the conditions that was necessary in order to get a team here.”
Not all of the public comment was negative; several residents encouraged the project and the pace it’s moving forward.
“We need to go ahead with this. This is fabulous,” said Marilyn Bower, a volunteer advocate for the Delano Neighborhood Association.
“And I know we’re going to have some problems we’ve got to work out, probably parking is one, but let’s do it. … Everything falls in place.”