The phrase "backroom deal" suggests sleaze and corruption. But sometimes bad things happen in plain sight.
Officials in Kansas City, Missouri, want to build a 1,000-room hotel near Bartle Hall. They have been told that the city needs a supersized hotel if it wants to compete with Denver and Indianapolis for convention business.
The hotel will come at a steep price and carry substantial risk. The price is $280 million in the latest estimate. The city will issue bonds to pay for its construction, putting the general fund in jeopardy if rooms go empty.
The politicians, downtown interests and tourism boosters who want the hotel to get built have been smart. They seem to be making an effort to get everyone used to the idea of a convention hotel. We're being carried into the pool one step at a time, not thrown in the deep end.
Last year, the City Council set up a steering committee to handle the 1,000-room hotel. The committee has subcommittees. It sends out press releases. Everything looks nice and orderly.
On April 26, the committee accepted a subcommittee's recommendation and selected a potential site for the hotel: the block on which the Kansas City Power & Light Building stands. The site drew favor because of its location between the convention center and the Power & Light District — two existing big-ticket items with debt obligations stretching for miles.
Councilwoman Cindy Circo, the steering committee co-chair, took time during the April meeting to address unnamed critics. Circo emphasized the transparent manner in which the committee conducted its business. She drew attention to the fact that the meeting was open to the public, just as others had been.
I've been to a few committee meetings. I can attest that they do not take place under Tiffany lamps with cigar smoke curling to the ceiling.
Transparency is not the problem. What the process needs is more critical thinking.
To illustrate my point, I want to look back on some momentum-building moments.
Let's start at January 9, 2007. That was the day when a 62-page report encouraging the city to build a 1,000-room hotel was completed.
The study was produced by a Minnesota-based consulting outfit called Conventions, Sports & Leisure International. The consultants knew the city. They had contributed to a previous proposal that led to a renovation and an expansion of Bartle Hall — the hall's second expansion in 15 years.
City Hall took action on the hotel study. Outgoing Mayor Kay Barnes and the City Council passed an ordinance embracing its findings and encouraging the new mayor and council to begin planning so the downtown renaissance might continue.
Two nights later, 800 civic leaders enjoyed a banquet dinner and jazz at Bartle Hall to celebrate its recent $150 million makeover. The pooh-bahs had high hopes for that Bartle Hall update. In 2004, as the construction work was about to began, Rick Hughes, president and CEO of the Kansas City Convention & Visitors Association, had suggested to me that a new ballroom might double the citys convention business.
Hughes was dreaming. The new convention business did not materialize.
Faulty assumptions were not to blame, however. No, a new story line was emerging. Big conventions were staying away because the delegates didn't have a 1,000-room hotel where they could retire.
On April 3, 2008, the council directed then-City Manager Wayne Cauthen to hire a consultant to develop a funding plan for the 1,000-room hotel. Cauthen did not have to look far. He hired a partnership made up of Conventions, Sports & Leisure and another out-of-town firm.