Power & Light fizzle

It was full-bore coverage and a must-be-there happening.

A row of TV video cams, tripod to tripod, pointed into the inner sanctum of the city council chambers; print journalists flipped open their reporter’s notebooks, tape recorders were set on pause; Madame Mayor decked out in green; and a who’s who of the city’s development lawyers were in attendance. Smiles, waves, backslaps, and handshakes popped forth among the assembled. Only the few downtown property owners present were solemn in their demeanor, as if they were Indians ready to negotiate once again with the U.S. Cavalry, hoping to retain a semblance of dignity in the midst of loss, hinting at the underlying farce that seemed to be at hand. Saying that the city was about to once again spin its wheels when it came to making a decision on the Power & Light District is too kind of an assessment.

Well-connected attorney Aaron March opened with introductions before members of the city’s Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee. It was like old friends meeting for an after-work drink, the playing out of a well-established routine. Councilmembers Ed Ford, Troy Nash, Jim Rowland, and Bonnie Sue Cooper were acquainted with March’s clients. In all likelihood, the committee members knew pretty much what David Allman, president of Regent Partners, and Reid Freeman, vice president, were going to say.

March acted as pitchman, tossing around the word “exciting” and linking it with “day,” trying to burn the date of April 12 into Kansas City’s collective memory. It didn’t work. Freeman took the handoff and headed for the sidelines. Regent Partners, he said, was announcing the kickoff of a $160 million to $170 million “initial launch” of the Power & Light project, which would use $40 million in public money and between $120 million and $130 million in private funding, of which Regent would put up 30 percent to 35 percent equity. The residential, office, and entertainment development Freeman detailed was much smaller than the 12-block project voters approved in February 1998. A groundbreaking, he said, would be in the fall. Regent would concentrate on the blocks west of Main along a Baltimore corridor. The Midland Theatre, the old TWA building, a renovated President Hotel and Empire Theater, the Power & Light building, and a new office building would “collectively,” said Freeman, “be the catalyst to allow phase two of the initial launch to begin next spring.”

A big part of that catalyst would be a House of Blues nightclub and restaurant in the old Empire Theater space. But that entertainment piece of Regent’s proposal didn’t make much of a sound. A House of Blues representative was nowhere to be found to help Freeman and Allman in the cheerleading. Councilman Rowland asked Freeman whether there would be “multiple promoters” of entertainment within the district. Freeman answered by saying Regent thought “the local flavor (of entertainment) is good” and guaranteed the project wouldn’t have the “same generic flavor” of other entertainment districts around the country. When pressed by Rowland, Freeman said, “No one will have the ability to book within the project” other than Regent or its representatives.

No one on the four-member city council committee asked the really important questions concerning the House of Blues: What effect would that national operation have on the struggling 18th & Vine District? Are we committing public money to two projects that will compete with each other? Does doing so make sense?

Those questions escaped Mayor Kay Barnes as well. Her address to the committee was full of the usual civic boosterism. Instead of an “exciting day,” as used by March, it was “exciting things” and an “extraordinary day.” Barnes added nothing to the discussion except a reminder that she chaired the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission when it first signed off on the Power & Light District project, then spearheaded by AMC Theaters. That project, first slated at $454 million and then pushed up to $628 million, had Lexus-like flash compared with Regent’s hoped-for Hyundai-like warranty to get something moving.

When Paul Thomas, a downtown businessman and property owner, rose to remind the people at the gathering that it was day 799 since voters committed $176 million to the project, all references to an “exciting day” evaporated. The question seemed to be not whether the committee was acting to save downtown but whether it was maneuvering to save Regent Partners from admitting the company had nothing solid to bring to the table — no leases, no firm commitments, no real financing of the newly proposed plan for the Power & Light District.

A parade of speakers began reminding the committee of that fact. Attorney Phil Bledsoe, representing the owners of the Power & Light building, voiced his clients’ opposition to being included in the district. Regent’s proposal, said Bledsoe, points to the “failure of the previous (Power & Light) plan and abandonment by AMC. Far from being a catalyst, this project has been an implement … a barrier” to downtown development. Kent Crippin, executive director of the Downtown Council, echoed some of Bledsoe’s comments. He asked the committee to re-evaluate Regent’s control of development rights in such a large area, saying other developers have been stymied in their efforts to propose new downtown development.

After more testimony from other downtown property owners, Rowland reminded Allman and Freeman about the “Show-Me” slogan of Missourians and of the men’s promise at a previous committee hearing that the next time they appeared, Regent would have the preconditions (leases and financing) met. “At this point in time, you certainly haven’t shown me,” Rowland said.

A few days later, Allman, while being interviewed on KCUR 89.3’s Up To Date show, responded to some of Rowland’s concerns. Allman said AMC was still very much involved in the project, though when asked to give the exact amount of AMC’s financial commitment, all Allman would say was that it was “very substantial.” But he added, “AMC will come back with a multiplex in the district” as originally proposed for the project. Allman said on the radio program that his company expects to have firm commitments — “50 percent (presumably preleasing agreements) for office and 50 percent for retail” — when the city council committee meets on June 14. “I’m not contemplating not meeting those commitments,” he said. Otherwise, Regent would consider giving up development rights, said Allman, although he avoided accepting a specific date to do just that.

Regent’s “central challenge” is attracting and keeping tenants, said Allman. Many of Kansas City’s commercial real estate brokers agree. “Downtown KC has no history of sustaining anything like this,” said one person familiar with the market. “Potential tenants fear the area may not be able to draw in the almighty suburban consumer. Essentially, this is a project that a lot of people want to see go through but that no one wants to personally take a risk on.”

Regent has been furiously seeking tenants. The same source quoted above said Regent has a signed letter of intent with Jillian’s, described as an “entertainment, multivenue facility,” and is “working on” letters of intent with ESPN Zone, Napa Valley Grill, Old Navy, a major music retailer (possibly Tower Records or a Virgin megastore), and a major book retailer. When asked about those retailers as possible tenants for the Power & Light District, Allman said, “I’m not in the position to comment on individual tenants.”

Despite doubts that Regent will come back to the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee with preconditions met in leasing and financing of the project, the company’s $170 million plan is an improvement over the monstrosity that was the original AMC proposal. Regent Partners doesn’t take a bulldozer approach to downtown. The company proposes to renovate, rather than destroy, existing structures (reaping additional tax breaks in the process) and embraces a strong residential component to the development — something AMC ignored and the TIF Commission didn’t have the foresight to insist upon during the first approval go-around.

The sticking points are the development rights Regent controls over a 12-block area and the inclusion of the Power & Light building within the project. If the Planning, Zoning, and Economic Development Committee, under Ed Ford’s chairmanship, really wants to get downtown revitalization going, this is where to start. Forget the old; it’s time to carve out a new plan.

Contact Bruce Rodgers at 816-218-6776 or bruce.rodgers@pitch.com.

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