July 20, 2024

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City officials not ruling out a tax increase for Wichita riverfront plan

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City officials acknowledge that upwards of $1 billion in public money will be needed for the Wichita riverfront development plan, and they won’t rule out a tax increase to pay for it.

Wichita is buzzing about five proposed design plans for the Riverfront Legacy Masterplan. Three of the five proposed plans tear down Century II, but all of them included a new convention center, performing arts space, park, office space, and apartments. The proposed cost ranges from $970 million to $1.5 billion, with a small portion of each plan being privately funded. Interestingly, the online design scenarios do not include the projected costs.

The Sentinel reached out to Wichita City Council members to ask if a tax increase is being considered for the Wichita riverfront development. Cindy Claycomb and Brandon Johnson are the only Council members who responded.

“I understand you see that number and my first reaction is how are we going to afford that,” says Claycomb.

Claycomb wants to explore options to pay for development before a tax increase is considered.

“I think there is a lot of discussion before we start talking about ‘oh we’ll just raise taxes and that how we will pay for it,’” says Claycomb.

Johnson’s email to The Sentinel noted the importance of communication. 

“The final plan, costs, and recommendations will all be released publicly so that our citizens can have a robust conversation about the future of our riverfront. A major part of this is ensuring that representatives from the committee get out in neighborhoods and organizations with the plan.”

Johnson continued noting the importance of voter approval of any financial plan. 

“Ultimately this will come before voters when it comes to funding this plan. Voters will be informed with the costs, how much private philanthropy will likely contribute and what that final remaining cost would be. It will be left to the voters to support a bold inclusive vision or not.”

In 2014 Wichita voters turned down a tax increase that would have garnered $400 million over 5 years. The time table and costs for the riverfront plan are still undetermined, but as briefly mentioned in a presentation at the Hyatt Regency, the period could be anywhere from 10 to 20 years. Wichita Mayor-elect Brandon Whipple is taking office in 2020 around the time that Populous will finish its study. As it stands now the design study only requires city council approval. Whipple feels that any approved design and plan to pay for it should be put to voters.

“I would favor a vote of the public on a project like that. My initial thought is seeing if the public wants to move forward with it,” says Whipple.

Public sentiment regarding the Wichita riverfront plan has largely been centered around whether or not to tear down Century II, but the overall development will include multi-phase development touching nearly every square foot between Douglas to Kellogg and Main street to the Arkansas River.  And as previously reported by The Sentinel, the City of Wichita may own the office space, hotel, and apartments in direct competition with the private sector taxpayers footing most of the bill.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, so if you do a project like this, it would have to have the public behind it because the majority will be paid with tax dollars one way or the other,” says Whipple.

The emphasis on the public interaction and feedback has given the public insight into the plan, but given city handling of the new baseball stadium and the water plant, Whipple feels the distrust of city projects is high.

“This opportunity is a chance to restore some trust, by making sure the public has input on what the plan looks like and being transparent with the price,” says Whipple.

This story has been updated; the original version didn’t reflect statements from Brandon Johnson.

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