The open-air portion of the Power & Light District erupted into a sea of pumped fists and spilled beer when Landon Donovan booted a ball past Ghana's goalkeeper during the World Cup. The sweating mass testified to the tournament's appeal — and to the suddenly more viable future of American soccer. But the crowd at KC Live, estimated at 12,000, said something about downtown, too.
The flags and painted faces confirmed Power & Light's status as one of the area's prime gathering points. For the sports fan who likes to shout beer orders and hug strangers, no other place in town offers the same atmosphere.
The game ended in a loss for the Americans, but the cheers for Donovan's goal reverberated off skyscrapers — and even earned a place in ABC's final-round highlights package.
Yet just a couple of weeks after the celebration, a top man at City Hall says the Power & Light District will be a drag on the city budget for a generation. City Manager Troy Schulte said recently that the entertainment district could require an annual subsidy of $10 million–$15 million for as long as the debt remains on the books.
Schulte's budget made the news, but it barely was news. The numbers haven't worked at Power & Light since the drinks began to flow at the heavily subsidized funporium in 2007. The city issued $295 million in bonds to pay for the project. The creditors' payments were supposed to come from sales taxes and other monies generated at the site. But reality — pesky reality — has lagged behind expectations since day one.
City officials who support the Power & Light deal are less gloomy than Schulte. Though the margarita projections may have been a little wild, they say, a bona fide attraction now stands on ground once demoralized by seedy bars, haunted houses and crumbling parking lots. Below the surface, the sewer pipes are no longer made of wood. "We had basically Civil War plumbing under our downtown," Councilman Ed Ford says.
Replacing 19th-century plumbing is usually a good idea. And the Scooby-Doo argument also has merits: Haunted houses (the commercial kind, not buildings with paranormal reputations) belong in the West Bottoms, away from the central business district.
But the story of the Power & Light's taxpayer burden is even more aggravating than it appears on the surface.
When the city started planning the Power & Light District in 2004, it hired C.H. Johnson Consulting Inc., in Chicago, to whip up sales projections for the shops and restaurants that would create the entertainment zone. In the consultants' estimation, the district was going to perform like a symphony of cash registers.
Still, city officials winced when they sold the $295 million in Power & Light District bonds in 2006. Even with the $15.6 million in tax revenue that the consultants projected for the first year, the officials knew that they could barely cover the mortgage payments. A former finance director, Deb Hinsvark, called the margin "very skinny."
Proponents of the deal acknowledged the risk. But even then, they had no idea how loosely they were playing with the city's credit, because C.H. Johnson's forecasts were junk. In the first full year of operation, the tax revenues fell $11.4 million short of that $15.6 million projection.
It's no secret that the Cordish Co., the city's private partner in the Power & Light District, has had trouble finding and keeping tenants. The spiraling economy has only added to the challenge.
But it's the consultants at C.H. Johnson — and the city officials who believed them — who now look unfit to mop the floors at Johnny's Tavern. Now 85 percent leased, the district is hardly a ghost town. The thousands of people who went to the district to watch soccer during the World Cup attest to its brand recognition. Power & Light isn't everyone's favorite destination for every occasion. But no one can call the concept a failure.