The single largest infrastructure project in Kansas City, MO history is heating up. Construction on the new $1.5 billion terminal at Kansas City International Airport (KCI) began early 2019 and is slated to open March 3, 2023.
But for the last several months, controversy has been surrounding the proposed concessionaire for the airport, the firm overseeing news, gift, food and beverage services.
After completing the city’s Request for Proposals (RFP) process, Vantage Airport Group emerged from a pool of five concessionaire proposers as the selection committee’s preferred choice. The other four bids the city received were Delaware North Companies, Inc., Greater Kansas City, Restaurant & Retail Group, LLC, MERA KC and PLTR-SSP @ KCI, LLC.
The selection committee was made up of five members: Councilman Dan Fowler, assistant city manager Wes Minder, Nia Richardson of KC BizCare Office, aviation director Patrick Klein and airline representative Kyle O’Neal of Southwest Airlines.
Vantage representatives presented their proposal to the city council business session Sept. 16, pointing out that KCI would feature local brands, generate local jobs and provide opportunities for small, women-owned and minority-owned businesses.
In their presentation, Vantage representatives said they project that they will achieve 60% to 70% Airport Concession Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (ACDBE), 80% of businesses at the terminal will be local, and 70% to 90% of food and beverage businesses and 20% to 30% of retail businesses will be local and minority owned.
Representatives also said they are committed to a $15 per hour starting minimum wage and predict to create more than 1,000 jobs.
In addition, Vantage representatives noted that travelers will find unique, regionally-inspired shops and restaurants with the newest technology and reasonable prices. Local brands featured in the concessions program include Urban Cafe, Soiree Steak and Oyster House, Stockyards Brewing Co. and more.
Vantage plans to represent the Jazz District, City Market, Union Station and the Stockyards in the airport, organizing concessions reminiscent of each district.
The selection committee recommended Vantage because of its experience at other airports worldwide, the inclusion of local and national brands, the offering of significant opportunities for small businesses and woman- and minority-owned businesses and a strong financial offer with a private investment of $65 million requiring no public tax dollars.
There is an estimated $1.5 billion in concession sales over the life of the 15-year Vantage contract, including an estimated $250 million of revenue to the Kansas City Aviation Department and an additional $50 million in sales tax to the city over the life of the contract.
The city kept information about the other four bidders confidential until last week when each firm waived their privacy concerns to increase transparency in the process. Out of all of the other proposals, Vantage had the highest percentage of ACDBE participation at 60%. Other firms’ ACDBE participation ranged from 16% to 25%.
Vantage also had the most expensive build out amount of $65 million, while the other proposals ranged from $45 million to $51 million.
This Buffalo, NY-based firm planned to feature businesses like Made in KC and LC’s Bar-B-Q. They also planned to have various exhibits including one honoring baseball’s Negro Leagues.
Kansas City Restaurant Group
This proposal included Ruby Jean’s and a partnership with the Chief’s Patrick Mahomes’ Mahomies Foundation.
Included in Mera KC’s proposal was Peachtree, Street Corner Urban Market and M&M Bakery. This firm also planned to feature the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum.
Virginia’s SSP America and Paradies Lagardere teamed up to create their proposal which included the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Black Archives of Mid-America and the Kansas City Chiefs Kingdom. The proposal included businesses like Smaxx Burgers, Chicken and Fries and Jones Bar-B-Q.
Concerns From Community and City Council
While Vantage received support from the special committee, there has been some concern over the firm and their proposal.
Councilmembers Heather Hall and Teresa Loar expressed their concern of the lack of representation of the Northland in Vantage’s presentation. Councilwoman Ryana Parks-Shaw also expressed concern about the lack of representation of the Fifth District.
“This airport is north of the river and there is nothing about north of the river here,” Loar said to Vantage officials. “There was no mention of living north or what we represent or anything else in your proposal.”
Parks-Shaw agreed and added that there was no mention of the Kansas City Zoo or Swope Park, both located in the Fifth District.
In addition, at a Sept. 29 Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations committee meeting, both Loar and Councilwoman Katheryn Shields removed themselves from a vote after expressing their concerns about the lack of transparency in the process and the lack of time to review the other concessionaire bids.
City staff decided to keep the other four bids private until the council makes their final vote Oct. 7, but with concerns over transparency, all five bidders waived their privacy concerns and the city made the proposals public Oct. 1.
“This is not something that ought to be rushed,” Shields said, adding there wasn’t enough time to review the bids before voting.
Loar also expressed concern that local and minority owned businesses won’t last long in the airport because of rent and the high cost of building storefronts.
While Loar and Shields left before the vote, the ordinance still passed out of committee after Mayor Quinton Lucas joined the meeting on Zoom to vote, bringing back quorum.
“I will not be pushed into a vote. This has been the most corrupt vote I’ve been a part of,” Loar said. “We need to trust the process, yes, but we need to verify it. This is a 15-year contract that we’re getting into. I think we really ought to take our time.”
Roxsen Koch, with the Polsinelli law firm representing PLTR-SSP also agreed that the decision-making process had not been transparent.
“We’re strictly prohibited to talk to city council or staff, but that did not occur,” Koch said. “The selected team was allowed to do that, whereas our team was not.”
PLTR-SSR currently has a contract to run news and gift shops at KCI.
Many of the local businesses Vantage proposed for the airport showed their support of the firm at the Sept. 29 committee meeting.
Anita Moore, owner of Soiree Steak and Oyster House in the Jazz District said starting her business was rough and the pandemic almost closed them down completely.
Soiree is one of the local, Black-owned businesses Vantage proposes to house in the new terminal.
Moore said Vantage stood by her through the pandemic and she participated in their mentoring program.
“We’re not even into the airport yet and they’ve helped me in so many ways. I’ve been making better decisions in my business,” Moore said. “I have very good faith that they’re going to make sure that we’re successful at the airport, as well as still being able to be in my community.”
Owner of City Market Coffee Nicole Ammer said she supports Vantage.
“Yes, we are small local businesses and yes, it is understandable for you to be concerned about small local businesses and we appreciate the questions that you’ve asked to ensure our success,” Ammer said. “From my experience in the past nine months, I truly believe that Vantage has selected a very strong team to represent the new KC airport. We are all passionate and we deserve this opportunity.”
Kim Randolph, president of the Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce said she understands the risks involved in the decision-making process, but said it’s a risk they should take, especially because of Vantage’s high percentage of local and minority-owned business participation.
The ordinance will be voted on in the full city council session at 3 p.m. Oct. 7.