The company that's developing Kansas City's new downtown entertainment district wants to keep the good times from rolling in other neighborhoods.
The issue is beer. And it's the latest example of how Cordish Co., the East Coast developer of the Power and Light District, has shown its ungratefulness to a city at the breaking point of its generosity.
A few weeks ago, state Sen. Jolie Justus of Kansas City introduced a bill that would allow merchants' associations for Westport, 39th Street, Martin City and other neighborhoods to apply for "festival" liquor permits. If the business owners in these unique parts of town wanted to put up barricades and hold an art fair or, hell, just a simple street party, these special-event licenses would let customers carry drinks into common areas and from venue to venue.
On February 6, Jon Engelman, the executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, went to Jefferson City to speak on behalf of the bill. As he and his attorney, Charles Renner, made the rounds, they discovered that a Cordish rep and his attorney were also paying visits to legislators.
The Cordish guys were trying to kill the festival bill.
Cordish, it appears, doesn't want Waldo, 18th and Vine or Zona Rosa to enjoy the same sorts of privileges it won on an earlier trip to the capitol. Back in 2005, state lawmakers passed legislation making drinks portable in certain entertainment districts. The law was written in such a way that only the Power and Light District would qualify for the exemption.
The Power and Light District is itself a creature of state law. Former Mayor Kay Barnes spent weeks in Jefferson City lobbying for a bill that would let some downtown redevelopment projects capture state tax revenue. Passed in 2003, the legislation paved the way for the retail-and-restaurant funporium now taking shape along downtown's once-grim south loop.
But what's good for Cordish apparently isn't good for Westport or anywhere else.
Renner, the lawyer working for Engelman's group and other neighborhood associations, says Cordish is the only one opposing the festival bill. The company wants to protect its competitive advantage.
Cordish attorney Charles Hatfield argued in Jefferson City that Kansas City had promised the Power and Light District unique status. But Renner says no such promise appears in the development agreement; even if such a promise did exist, Renner questions whether it would be enforceable.
Local merchants have been suspicious of Cordish since the company started putting its stamp on downtown. Short of instituting a blockade to keep beer trucks out of Westport, it's hard to think of anything less neighborly than Cordish trying to keep the city's existing purveyors of food and drink from getting some of the rights the Power and Light District will enjoy once construction is complete.
After all, Cordish is getting an extraordinary amount of public assistance. The city issued bonds to pay for the land, prepare the site and help fill the buildings with tenants such as Ted's Montana Grill. The debt will require an astounding $506 million in public money. If bison burger sales fall short of projections, taxpayers are on the hook.
Engelman stresses to me that he's not anti-Cordish. "I support the entertainment district fully," he says. A successful Power and Light District can benefit the small business around town, Engelman says, and vice versa.
By contrast, Cordish seems to believe that entertainment is a zero-sum game.
In fighting the festival bill, Cordish has even broken rank with City Hall. The bill appears on the list of the city's legislative priorities. Greg Williams, a former Barnes aide who now works under City Manager Wayne Cauthen, spoke in favor of the bill in Jefferson City.
Barnes and Cauthen did not respond to my interview requests. Neither of them enjoys talking to me. But if I had to guess, I think they'd be more embarrassed by Cordish's behavior than annoyed with this newspaper.
Cordish's unwillingness to share relaxed liquor rules is only the latest bit of discouraging news. Originally scheduled to open last October, significant pieces of the Power and Light District will still be dark when the Big 12 basketball tournaments come to town next month. Last November, Cordish announced that it wanted to charge $2 for parking in garages that were supposed to be free ("The Dance," November 22, 2007).
City officials knew that the Cordish bonds were risky. Forecasts showed the Power and Light District producing just enough revenue to cover the bond payments. But those projections may have been optimistic. Councilwoman Deb Hermann, the chairwoman of the city's Finance Committee, has said recently that she expects that the Power and Light District will not produce enough new revenue to cover the debt service.
To be sure, Cordish wants to see its investment protected.
Traffic along Grand Boulevard makes a kwunk-kwunk sound when it reaches the Power and Light District. The noise comes from driving over not metal plates but buried pylons. Workers have built retractable bollards into Grand at 13th Street and Truman Road. The bollards will close Grand to traffic whenever Cordish wants to throw a hot, booze-in-the-streets party.
The bollards are spaced about 3 feet apart. I imagine that, once deployed, they might resemble middle fingers to folks in Westport or Martin City.
A version of this column appeared on The Pitch's Web site last Friday. Later that day, Cordish Marketing Director Jon Stephens suggested that his company's opposition to the festival bill was not entirely selfish. Stephens sent me an e-mail saying the bill "opens up a great deal more questions than it answers," though he did not elaborate.
He continued: "I think an honest discussion is best, not inflammatory one-sided stories."
I'll cop to flame fanning but not unfairness. I sought comment from Stephens and Hatfield prior to the story's appearance on the Web.
Stephens also tried to suggest that Cordish had no say over those bollards. "That is a Sprint Center and Parks and Recreation issue," he wrote.
So let the record be clear: It's just a coincidence that the city installed street-closing mechanisms on the one side of the arena that borders the Power and Light District.