The following is a lightly edited version of an insightful comment left on this site by an unknown writer, the “Wichitator.” Since many readers don’t read comments, I’ve promoted this to a post.
Hundreds of millions have already been spent for downtown redevelopment and what do we have to show for it? In contrast, look at the benign neglect the city has had on the thriving east and west sides of town where projects on Maize and Webb roads have prospered despite heavy property taxes.
Over 20 years ago the current downtown developer of the languishing East Bank (WaterWalk) project, Jack DeBoer, provided his vision for revitalizing downtown. There was a lot of public discussion about DeBoer’s proposal including front page Wichita Eagle articles at that time. No one in the local news media wants to talk about this now apparently.
Ironically enough, at that time, DeBoer’s plan did not include the struggling East Bank (Waterwalk) project that he is currently involved in. DeBoer’s vision of downtown projects were largely implemented by taxpayers over time.
The largest and most expensive of these projects will be the Intrust Arena with its $200+ million price tag. The only one that has been partially rejected was turning the Keeper of the Plains into a 500 foot community version of a Seattle Sky Needle that one might argue was at least partially implemented when this statue was placed on a much higher pedestal at a more prominent point where the two rivers meet at high cost to city taxpayers.
Lesser downtown projects that were part of DeBoer’s plan and were a lot less expensive than the new arena, were completed years ago. This public infrastructure is now in place at a very expensive cost to taxpayers of the past few decades. Another example, Exploration Place, still has years before its mortgage will be paid off, I believe.
Where has been the return for this community? It is invisible to this taxpayer. Look at the downtown taxing district. It takes in about the same level of property tax revenues as it has always received. It is clear that there is no private sector growth downtown. So tax revenues are stagnant. This publicly funded but privately selected downtown board operates with almost no media oversight. There is some taxpayer subsidized remodeling going on but outside of that, I can only think of the Garvey Center where significant private funds are being spent on a partial remodel of their downtown property.
The philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Since the downtown development plans are NOT being made public it looks like we’ll soon have another, 21st century version of the 1980s DeBoer plan that the taxpayers in our community will be expected to fund. In Washington, nothing fails like excess (see GSE’s Fannie & Freddie) and in Wichita we are trying to follow in our federal masters’ footsteps. Since local government can’t print money like the political fools in Washington can through the Federal Reserve Bank, the fiscal chickens will come home to roost a lot more quickly here. Mr. Weeks is right in trying to see the details of these proposals. If we did, the price tag would probably take our collective breaths away. The downtown development folks who want to be the 21st century reincarnation of Mr. DeBoer are just as right in wanting to keep this information hidden.