Kansas City, Mo. Paul Thomas has stuck it out in downtown Kansas City, basing his rubber stamp and sign business there for 42 years.
He's seen neighbors come and go mostly go and watched property owners tear down their buildings instead of renovating them. In their place, uncovered parking lots lie like fallow fields in this city's core.
Mayor Kay Barnes has launched an effort she hopes will turn the blight into tree-lined avenues and clusters of bustling neighborhoods. It's another in a three-decade chain of plans that Thomas claims has done more harm to downtown than good.
"They've run off several small businesses with the cloud of redevelopment," he said. "We're all sitting here in limbo ... When you have a cloud of eminent domain over you, why fix up your building?"
Barnes and her civic supporters say they've taken lessons from the past in developing this plan. This time, they're looking to the state for help in capitalizing on growth that's already happening downtown.
Barnes proposes $1.8 billion in largely unspecified projects, including possibly a new downtown arena and aquarium, all aided in part by as much as $800 million in public funds.
Government money, through local tax incentives and up to $325 million in state-financed bonds, would be used to buy land, build parking garages, create green space and improve streets. The idea is that a pleasant, user-friendly downtown will attract more businesses and residents, said Andi Udris, president of the city's Economic Development Corp.
Legislation paving the way for the bonds was filed Monday (Feb. 11) by Rep. Henry Rizzo, D-Kansas City. Under the plan, locally issued bonds would be repaid through new state sales tax and state income tax revenue generated by the projects they've spawned.
"There haven't been financial resources in the past to do this," Udris said of previous downtown plans. "Local money sources are still not enough."
Focus on arts
The plan's first phase dubbed "SoLo" by Barnes for its proximity to the southern section of Interstate highways that loop downtown centers around a $300 million, privately funded performing arts center.
The city's part is to help acquire the land and to build a $40 million parking garage for the center, which would include an 1,800-seat all-purpose concert hall, a 2,100-seat theater and a planned arts learning center for children, said Ken Dworak, the project's manager.
Leaders in the city's arts community say the mayor is right to center her first effort on a cultural facility rather than a sports venue.
"A lot of people that go to arts and cultural events stay longer and spend more money," said Joan Israelite, president of the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. "People who go to theater, they go to dinner, and stay in a hotel. Maybe you eat at a sports event and then drive home."
But Barnes' plan also includes money to renovate sports stadiums at the Truman Sports Complex, about 15 minutes from downtown. The stadiums where the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals play would get $100 million of the bonds and $150 million from a one-eighth-cent Kansas City-area sales tax, up for renewal in November.
The stadium funding is in separate legislation in Jefferson City than Barnes' downtown plan. And bill sponsor Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City, said his priority is gaining approval for the stadiums first.
Also before the Legislature is a $100 million bonding proposal for a new ballpark for the St. Louis Cardinals. Gov. Bob Holden has already voiced approval for the project, which includes a pledge by the Cardinals to build an adjacent residential and business complex.
Barnes has been hesitant to list specific projects, saying she'll release more details later. Her critics have pounced on that, saying the lack of specifics could hurt the proposal's chances with lawmakers.
"We don't want our downtown area to decay any more than it has," Wiggins said. "But you have to have a lot of specifics when trying to sell something to the General Assembly, dollars signs and specifics of your whole project."
In October 2000, the plug was officially pulled on the last revitalization plan, the $628 million Power and Light entertainment and retail district. It was planned in the same area Barnes is targeting with SoLo.
Approved by voters in 1998, the plan rezoned 30 acres of downtown and endorsed $176 million in tax incentives. A consultant's report said the project was three times larger than any entertainment and retail plan in the country.
Udris said that failure taught Barnes and other civic leaders to reduce the level of public subsidy. That's why public money in Barnes' plan is targeted for infrastructure improvements, not the development itself, he said.
"But voters approved (Power and Light). That tells me that people want to see improvement there," he said.
The city core is not without development. The River Market, a several square-block neighborhood of bars, lofts and a farmer's market, is growing.
"Right now, we view the housing development to date as a novelty," Udris said. "We call them 'young pioneers.' We want to create a neighborhood, where you have all the amenities, that can attract a more permanent base of residents."
Still, Thomas remains skeptical. So do others, who've chided everything about the plan, from its name newspaper critics said it was derivative and lacked imagination to its lofty aspirations at a time when the state is cutting millions from the budget.
"The state's broke. The city's broke, and they've got some pie-in-the-sky, $1.8 billion dollar plan to revitalize an area that they can't even get anyone to come down to," Thomas said.