A soccer game of power and privilege
What Question #1 is about is pretty much what most development is about these days when it comes to using public money — rich guys lower their investment risk by shoving a lot of a project’s cost onto the public’s back.
First to benefit is Price Brothers, a low-profile real estate development firm that had its beginnings on the Missouri side nearly six decades ago. The company has a sizeable footprint in Johnson County in single-family home and apartment development, and is looking to expand more into the commercial end.
Opponents of Question #1 charge that Johnson County will buy the 140-acre property at 167th & 69 Highway for a whopping $157,000 an acre. Price Brothers counters it can get more money if it develops the land as residential. But the housing market is down, particularly with over-built southern Johnson County. Passing the bond issue helps Price Brothers with a profitable maneuver around a sluggish housing market and positions it at the front line in bidding for constructing the retail component that is slated near the proposed soccer complex.
Promotional materials from the Johnson County Park & Recreation District project land acquisition costs at $16,819,100, which puts the cost at a little more than $120,000 an acre. Opponents say that land is available in other parts of Johnson County for $35,000 an acre. Plus, Wayne Flaherty of Homeowners Against Soccer Welfare says that his research indicates that roughly the same property sold for $8,743,000 or $61,572 per acre a year ago in 2005.
The JCPRD brochure goes on to state that road and utilities costs would be $4,862,700 and construction of buildings, restrooms, parking, etc would be $22,901,600.
The cost of land and construction — minus any soccer fields — exceeds $44 million of the $75 million total cost. “For the kids” to play soccer, the money spent will be less than one-half of the public money committed to the project.
The JCPRD brochure, while not outright in asking for a yes vote, makes the statement: “An Opportunity To Address The Need.” What’s left out of that statement is “At the Lowest Cost for Taxpayers.”
Having been a soccer coach for my kid’s team from kindergarten through sixth grade, we had to drive to 119th and Quivira to Stoll Park to play in the JCPR league. Our team was made up of kids — both boys and girls from the eastern — decidedly middle class — part of Prairie Village around state line. It was at least a 20-minute ride down I-35 to get to the game, and that’s without heavy traffic or waves of orange barrels.
Now, do you think a coach or parents in Prairie Village or Roeland Park or Merriam or Fairway or Mission are going to drive their kid to 167th Street to play soccer at 8 in the morning on a Saturday?
If this proposal was “for the kids,” why isn’t JCPRD proposing building soccer fields north of I-435? The district answers that in their taxpayer-paid brochure by stating: “To meet national tournament requirements, at least 20 fields must be located on the same site. In addition, construction and operational costs would increase significantly if the fields were spread throughout the county.”
So how does getting a national tournament benefit the hundreds of kids playing soccer? I don’t know since the vast majority of kids play for fun, not to reach some sort of tournament status. But a national tournament would sure benefit any nearby retail development.
As for keeping down construction costs: The JCPRD has not revealed any cost comparisons between building in various locations in the county — “To Address The Need” — to building at the 167th and 69 Highway location.
Opponents of Question #1 have done a comparison. The Cownie Park in Des Moines, IA, with 16 fields, parking for 1,200, bleacher seating on all fields and including a 2.000-seat and 750-seat stadium, was built for $7 million and just hosted the 2006 Youth Soccer National Championship.
Leaving aside the question whether Question #1 is a stalking horse for delivering public subsidies to the Wizard professional soccer team and its new owners, Johnson County officials have not done due diligence for county taxpayers. And why? The answer is connections, clout, influence and Overland Park’s addiction to development — the city never turns down an opportunity to build in open spaces — and its fetish to cater to the wealthy and powerful in hopes that it will stop being referred to as “a suburb of Kansas City.”
In general terms, I think the big muscle comes from the new owners of the Wizards. They include three executives, including co-founder Neal Patterson, of the Cerner Corp., a health care software company, with 2005 revenues of $1.16 billion, and principals in Rock Island Capital and C3 Holdings. Both of these private equity firms, with offices in Kansas City, invest, according to their websites, in the neighborhood of $2-$10 million “to finance later stage growth” with companies where they can recoup their initial investment and make a sizeable profit. C3 also has an office in Dallas and is likely familiar with past Wizard owner Lamar Hunt. Strangely, Rock Island, with an office in Chicago, has in the past invested in manufacturing type enterprises. It appears that being involved in a pro sports franchise is something new.
Another interesting thing about Rock Island is that one of the new owners of the Wizards and principal in the firm, David French, once worked for Kessinger Hunter & Co., one of Kansas City’s leading commercial real estate firms. Kessinger Hunter also controls development rights over the 9,000-acre Sunflower property in Johnson County.
For years Larry Winn III, of the law firm Polsinelli Shalton Welte & Suelthaus, has been involved in the Sunflower land development issue. Winn helped with the transfer of the property from federal control to the county, and promoted the ill-fated Oz proposal for the Sunflower site. He helps represent Kessinger Hunter and their interests in Johnson County, and is from a well-known political family with entrenched connections in Johnson County.
Opponents of Question # 1 charge that Winn helped steer the Wizards’ owners to the 169th Street site. It’s a charge that can’t be easily dismissed considering the new owners have yet to announce their future plans for the team, be it a new stadium or not. And, there’s no question that Winn’s law firm knows how to deliver on public subsidies for private developers — it’s been their specialty for years.
Johnson County, which used to have the reputation of conducting public business in a fair, open, even-handed way that sought to benefit most residents, is being stunk-up with the smell of backroom politics. Question #1 is a bad deal for soccer loving kids and their parents, and a bad deal for taxpayers. Give this proposal the red card and vote no.
Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at publisher_editeKC@kcactive.com.
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