Privatizing Wichita’s parks system has largely resulted in giveaways to developers and other private interests rather than Wichita’s residents, according to a report by the Wichita Eagle. Most of the renovations and rebuilding of public facilities in the city have largely been done with private interests first and foremost in mind.
As an example, between 2018 and 2020, Naftzger Park at Douglas and St. Francis was rebuilt at a cost of $5.2 million, largely — according to the Eagle — to facilitate the construction of a commercial/office complex at the park’s east edge and a 41-unit apartment conversion in the former Spaghetti Works building.
Evergy donated $1.4 million and has its name on the bandshell and video board that dominates the park, and alcohol sales are now controlled under contract to the city by live entertainment venue “The Wave.”
The Eagle says Naftzger is just the tip of the iceberg, with many of the largest park deals of the last 10 years done with private interests ahead of public interest.
In 2018 a rebuilt and privatized Stryker Soccer Complex near K-96 and Greenwich more-or-less destroyed the nonprofit Sedgwick County Soccer Association, “based at South Lakes Park — which once served 3,000 community youth — in favor of the for-profit operator that benefits from $23 million in new soccer fields funded by Sales Tax and Revenue, or STAR, bonds.”
STAR Bonds are a tool intended to help Kansas municipalities finance the development of major commercial, entertainment, and tourism projects. The bonds are paid off through increased sales tax revenue generated by the development.
However, a 2021 study by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit found that only 3 of the 16 STAR bond attractions they reviewed met Commerce’s tourism-related program goals, and a 2020 analysis of STAR Bond projects in Wichita, commissioned by the Sentinel’s parent company, Kansas Policy Institute, found that they mostly shifted economic activity and jobs to other parts of the city rather than create incremental activity.
Eagle reports other projects are “gimmies” for developers
Per the Eagle:
- The Chester I. Lewis Reflecting Square Park near Douglas and Market, dedicated to Wichita’s civil-rights struggle, will also be a $2.2 million decorative entryway for a new private osteopathic medical school.
- The city has partially constructed Pracht Wetlands Park near 29th North and Maize Road for hiking, bird-watching, and other wildlife observation. Some of the land for the park — flood-prone and essentially unbuildable — was donated by a developer of adjacent commercial properties. One of the first parts completed was a bridge into the park from a hotel that’s part of the development.
- Currently on hold is Crystal Prairie Lake Park in northwest Wichita. Another public-private venture, an ambitious $25 million plan for development has been sitting on a shelf since 2009 while a for-profit sand company excavates a 420-acre lake at the site. A tawdry history of city staff altering bids for the sand led to years of delay in creating the park. Now, the plan is so old that the cost of doing it has been estimated as much as four times what it would have been when it was drawn up. It’s likely to be dramatically scaled back, but developers around the site are still using it as a selling point for new homes.
AFPF finds stunning lack of oversight and transparency for STAR bonds
As the Sentinel reported earlier this month, the Americans’ For Prosperity Foundation found a startling lack of oversight at the Kansas Department of Commerce.
The scope of the issue, however, is unclear because nearly a year after filing the Kansas Open Records requests, AFPF still doesn’t have all the documents they requested.
AFPF’s Director of Investigations Kevin Schmidt said he filed the records requests in November 2021, and while he has received some of the records, he receives a monthly letter from the Kansas Department of Commerce saying more time is required to fulfill the requests.
“We’re getting close to a year now, and we’re still waiting on at least two categories of records,” Schmidt said in a telephone interview recently “We haven’t received anything from Secretary of Commerce (David) Toland; we haven’t gotten any emails. I think the only thing we’ve gotten are emails from the chief counsel Bob North.”
One of the more disturbing things Schmidt said he found was that in many cases, attorneys for the entities requesting the bonds are writing the draft bond approval letters to be rubber-stamped by the Commerce Department.
Indeed, in at least one case, Commerce wasn’t even aware of the details of a project for which they were drafting an approval letter.
The e-mails produced to AFPF-Kansas — and provided to the Sentinel — show multiple instances where the Department of Commerce fails to provide substantive oversight over STAR Bond projects. On more than one occasion, Commerce accepted draft approval documents from the law firms requesting STAR Bond approvals for their clients.