Council approves downtown incentive policy

Real Development's Exchange Place project is one of several redevelopment plans financed in-part by taxpayer incentives.

City Council members this morning approved a wide-ranging policy aimed at encouraging downtown development and carefully evaluating developers who want taxpayers to help make their projects happen.

District 4 council member Michael O’Donnell was the lone opposition vote. He said the policy was too “open ended” and carries too much risk to public funds.

“We’re risking the public’s time and money on these projects,” he said.

The downtown incentive policy will steer developers seeking city hall’s help to preliminary meetings with city officials and members of the Wichita Downtown Development Corporation. They will then have to submit a business plan and other documents to the city. Those requests will be vetted by city officials and private businesspeople and scored based on how well they fit with the city’s downtown development goals and how strong business plans are.

The policy marks a change in the city’s attitude toward public investment in developers’ projects downtown. Incentives such as tax increment financing will now have to be tied to public improvements, such as parks and shared parking garages. Previously, tax dollars could be used to acquire land for private developments.

While the policy is in some ways more restrictive, it also catered to developers’ requests. For example, developers worry about their personal financial information becoming public during the city’s vetting process. So the city opted to allow a third-party firm to perform financial analysis that will result in a summary report to city council members that does not show specifics but does disclose any significant findings.

Developers will have to pay an $8,500 development fee that Allen Bell, the city’s director of urban development, said is based on average costs the city incurs when reviewing proposals for city incentives.

Additionally, the developers will have to pay for the third-party analysis of financial information and Wichita State University’s cost-benefit analysis, which determines whether the incentives ultimately benefit the city financially.

Several people criticized the city’s efforts to revitalize downtown and the new policy that guides development projects that involve public support.

“The only prudent public investment is no public investment in the private sector,” said Clinton Coen, who ran for the District 3  seat in this spring’s election but was eliminated in the primary.

But downtown developer David Burk, WDDC President Jeff Fluhr and several council members voiced strong support for the policy and the city’s efforts to revitalize downtown.

Council member Janet Miller said that Wichita’s efforts have paid off, including the investments made as result of a downtown plan in 1989 and more recent projects.

“There is lots happening downtown now,” she said.