Ask a seasoned politician and they’ll tell you never count an issue down and totally out, because in a political arena, it’s likely to resurface again.  Well that may be the case for a project originally approved in 2020 as “the” project that was going to kickstart redevelopment of downtown Kansas City, KS.  

However, by January 2021, the $23 million mixed-used development to be built on the site of the Jack Reardon Convention Center was on its last breath. Now, the project appears to be plugged into life support, with the five Wyandotte County commissioners on the county’s Neighborhood and Community Development committee expressing support for reviving the derailed project. 

The Project  

In case you missed it or forgot, the Downtown Campus Development project was given initial approval in early 2020. Developer Willie Lanier, Jr., working with then Kansas City Mayor David Alvey and the county’s economic development team, had pulled together a creatively packaged agreement for the development to be located on the northwest corner of 5th and Minnesota, the current site of the Jack Reardon Convention Center. 

If approved, the $23 million project by Willie Lanier Jr. would be the first private-development of its kind in downtown Kansas City, KS in decades.

The planned development would demolish the existing convention center and replace it with a four- to five-story mixed-use residential building with first floor retail and commercial space. The project was to include a fitness center and 85 to 90 apartments, with five reserved for “workforce housing tenants” who earn less than 70% of KCK median income.

The project also included a new “right-sized” Reardon Center, approximately 10,000 Sq.Ft.

What Went Wrong?

More than “what went wrong,” the better question might be what happened next, because there doesn’t appear to be a wrong or right on this issue, just a difference in visions for the city’s downtown area.  

The derailing of the project was  predominately the result of changing leadership in Wyandotte County – from former Mayor Alvey to current Mayor Tyrone Garner who defeated Alvey in the November 2020 elections.  Garner agreed, downtown KCK was in need of a development shot in the arm, but he didn’t support tearing down the Reardon Center. 

The premise of those who supported the project was that the Reardon Center was out dated and the cost of renovating it and making it a “state-of-the-art,” convention attracting facility would be cost prohibitive.  Mayor Garner noted there was a $1 million available in a Reardon Center maintenance fund that could be spent on renovating the facility.  However, estimates for renovating the Reardon Center, which remains closed, were $4 million to get it operational and $8 to $10 million for a total remodel.  

Garner’s counter proposal was for Lanier to relocate his development project on the south side of Minnesota between 5th and 6th Streets,on city-owned land parking lot. His proposal left the Reardon Center in place, hopefully to be renovated and reopened.  

Power of the Agenda 

During the last Wyandotte County Commission meeting of 2022, the commissioners, using their power to suspend the rules, took a vote to take away some of Mayor Garner’s power to control the agenda of the commission.  As structured 25 years ago when the Wyandotte County Unified government was organized, the mayor had full-power over items placed on the agenda for commissioners to consider.  

It was this power that the mayor used to keep Lanier’s project from moving forward.  He never placed the item on the agenda for a vote by the commision. The 10 Wyandotte commissioners were never allowed to “officially” weight in on the direction of the project.  The project was never been voted up or down, it just hung in limbo for a year.      

Over the past year,, the mayor; LaVert Murray, chief economic development adviser to the Mayor; and staff from the Wyandotte Economic Development Council worked with Lanier to develop plans for an alternative project to be built on the south-side of Washington. 

Commission’s New Power 

The vote taken by the commissioners last month, by a vote of nine to one, amended the mayor’s power over the agenda by establishing a process that prohibited the mayor from keeping an item off the full-commission agenda if it was voted on an approved for forwarding to the commission by the members of any of the commission’s four standing committees.  

Using their new power, the commissioner’s may be able to get the original Lanier development project on the agenda for a vote.  

This week, during a meeting of the Neighborhood and Community Development Standing Committee, all five commission members expressed and interest in having the original Lanier Development, on the northside of of Minnesota, brought back for their consideration.  

Lanier had been asked to present preliminary plans for a southside of Minnesota Developmen.  A plan of action wasn’t proposed for a vote.  Instead, the committee members were asked to give staff some direction on how they wanted to proceed.  

It was clear, when finally allowed to give their opinion on the project, the members of the committee overwhelmingly supported going ahead with the original Lanier project that included demolishing the Reardon Center and replacing it with a “right-sized” convention space. 

Members of the committee included Commissioners: Tom Burroughs, Gayle Townsend, Andrew Davis, Chuck Stites and committee chair Brian McKiernan. 

Costly Delay

When asked, Lanier was clear, his interest was in going ahead with the original project.and that he had continued to work with the Wyco team on the alternative project based on his commitment to Wyandotte County and the county’s often ignored eastern/downtown area. 

“Private development to show up in this quarter had not happened,” said Lanier about his privately-funded project.  The first of its kind in eastern Wyandotte County in decades .  “I said I would take this on.  I’m not developing in the Legends or an outlet.  I’m coming where we need help and growth and jobs.”

The one-year delay had cost Lanier time and money.  He had already invested nearly $1 million in the project before the mayor put the project on hold.  

“For what it’s worth, I wnat to offer my sincere apologies for the political games that were played with your money, time and investment,” Commissoner Davis told Lanier. 

Other organizations that may have been directly impacted by the delay are the Hilton Garden Inn, located just west of the Reardon Center, that could have benefited from traffic generated at the Reardon Center, which has been closed for more than a year, or from the new convention space, that would be nearing completion based on the original construction calendar.

The project’s delay has hurt the company from Atlanta that bought the hotel and invested heavily in it said Lanier.   

“A hotel needs two things, you need guest and the ability to have food and beverage.  Right now there is no food and beverage dollars coming in,” said Lanier.  “We’re asking the hotel to try to make it on half of the business case.”  

Under the original plan, the hotel would contract to operate the replacement meeting space.    

With more residents nearby, The MERC grocery story, located at the corner of 5th and Minnesota, also stands to benefit from the project and has been hampered by the delay. 

Next Steps

Based on the direction the committe provided, city staff should begin work on bringing an updated development proposal for the original project back to the committee for its consideration.  That’s a process that could take a month and probably more..  

Reportedly, Mayor Garner is challenging the legality of the commissioner’s vote that took away his power  Depending on any legal processes he might take, there could possibly be an injunction that would keep the commissioner’s from implementing their approved procedural changes until a final ruling is made on the validity of their vote.  

There’s also the possibility that the updated project documents might not be favorable to a majority of the commission members.  

In addition, the mayor still has the power of the veto, so at least seven members of the commission must approve the project to override the mayor’s veto. 

If the project is approved, Lanier says his anticipated “build out”  is 14 months. 

Since 1996, Bonita has served as as Editor-in-Chief of The Community Voice newspaper. As the owner, she has guided the Wichita-based publication’s growth in reach across the state of Kansas and into...