For twenty years, the Westport Merchants Association has been the unified voice for more than seventy bar and restaurant owners, retailers and property owners, who must constantly deal with issues unique to an entertainment district. Recently, for example, the group lobbied for and gained City Hall's permission to close streets and charge admission to the neighborhood on weekends.
But on January 7, the Westport Merchants Association yielded power to the new Westport Community Improvement District. Tom Brenneis, Westport Merchants Association president, says his group is basically bankrupt. Without enough volunteers or money to provide security, cleanup and improvements, the association will likely cease to exist by the end of the month.
At its January 7 meeting, the association deeded its duties to the Westport CID, the board of which consists of five landlords, three bar owners, two store owners and one Westport resident. With property owners rather than merchants in control of Westport, partiers and shoppers could see big changes -- specifically, higher taxes on T-shirts, pizza and beer.
Generally, a "community improvement district" works like this: Property owners agree to tax themselves or their customers and use the extra money to improve their surroundings. Owners of at least 50 percent of a district's geographic area, along with those who control at least 50 percent of that district's assessed value (such as a landlord who owns a small but especially profitable street corner), must sign off on the deal. If the group calls for a new sales tax, area residents must agree to it.
The logic behind the Westport CID is that visitors from outlying cities such as Olathe and Lee's Summit should contribute to the hot spot's upkeep. The Westport CID has proposed a half-cent sales tax, which the group expects will gross $275,000 annually for the next twenty years.
That would mean plenty of dough for neighborhood improvements -- and significant changes to the district's landscape. Initial drawings show, for example, a four-story parking garage north of Buzzard Beach. Some merchants are complaining that the structure -- slated to be two stories taller than any building in Westport -- would eclipse their businesses. Bill Nigro, owner of the Beaumont Club, Torre's Pizza and Porter's, has submitted his own proposal to turn that lot into an outdoor mini-amphitheater with a jumbo projection screen and underground parking.
But there are other, more immediate disagreements about the new tax.
In March, residents of the new district will hold an election to decide whether to impose the new sales tax. But the way the Westport CID has drawn the district, at press time it appeared that only nine registered voters would be able to vote on that question.
The proposed taxing district might encompass as much as four blocks, but the boundaries zigzag in a seemingly arbitrary manner. Within the district are a fourteen-unit block of condos on 40th Street, two apartments above Torre's Pizza and a single family home on the southern edge of Westport near 43rd Street. The majority of Westport residents live outside the district. (Bob Elser, the one Westport resident on the CID board, is one of the nine voters expected to decide the tax increase.)
A tax increase would mean multi-million-dollar taxation with minimal representation.
Pam Ptacek, part owner of the Westport Coffee House, says the Westport CID has been gerrymandered by landlords to gain support for the tax. Community-improvement districts that collect taxes must be approved by the City Council, so last fall, Ptacek submitted a petition against the project, signed by 32 people, including retail-shop owners and neighborhood residents.
"We're very upset, because there's those people who drew this thing up, and they've appointed themselves to the [new CID] board," Ptacek tells the Pitch, referring to real estate titan Steve Block; Watkins & Company owner Rick Watkins; and Janet Howell, a representative of MC Loiness Realty Group, a subsidiary of DST. "They've got a lot of clout with the City Council."
On December 4, Ptacek's husband, Tom, also an owner of the Westport Coffee House, along with Craig Glazer, operations director of Stanford and Sons, and Nigro asked the council to delay the project for a year and called for a closer inspection of where the funds would go. (By that time, several of Ptacek's petition signers had rescinded their signatures.)
Nigro, one of the bar owners on the Westport CID board, supports the tax idea but says there are "glitches." People who eat, drink and shop in Westport would end up paying more. And the merchants -- whose customers would be paying the new tax -- would have little control over how the landlords on the CID board spend that money. If a bar owner such as Nigro wants to keep his beer prices steady, he'll essentially have to pay the extra sales tax himself.
"Why can't the people who collect this tax be allowed to vote on putting this CID in place?" Nigro asked the council in December. "Why did 90 percent of the people who will collect this sales-tax CID sign a petition, sent to you, wanting to fight the sales-tax CID?"
On December 18, though, the council rubberstamped the CID with little discussion.
"I wouldn't consider it a power shift," Brenneis tells the Pitch. "I'd consider it a consolidation of interests. The assumption is that the property owners control the board and are therefore controlling the tenants, which is just false. Westport for a long time has been fractured, not among a few groups but among a dozen groups. Now you've got people not only coming to the table but coming to the table with the resources to make things happen."
Glazer calls the CID a "bad gamble."
"It's giving a megamillion-dollar project to people with absolutely no [entertainment district] experience," Glazer says. He adds that some landlords on the board are pushing to corral the late-night scene by phasing out dance clubs.
Glazer expects to lose a third of his club's floor space in May. He says his landlord, Krtek Realty, will probably lease the top floor of his club to another tenant. Glazer would then have to take his comedy showcase downstairs, which would squeeze out a dance floor that's been bumping since the early '90s.
Last fall, Krtek leased the space at 4050 Westport Road (formerly the Mill Creek Brewery) to Tizers, a sports bar defined by its appetizer menu, its red-felt pool tables and more than thirty TVs.
"We're a restaurant first," says Tizers owner Shawn Boykin. "We have a gentlemen's agreement not to promote dancing in the club."
Other dance floors in the area have disappeared, too. In late October, Cactus Café held its grand opening in the old Have a Nice Day Café building -- sans the raised floor. Patrons still shake it, but technically they are getting all up-in-the-restaurant.
"This is an urban area," Glazer says. "Granted, you want to make it nice, but they are trying to put Johnson County rules and Parkville rules on an area that is anything but that."