The Kansas City Star editorial board called for the city council to reject a proposal to use taxpayer money to subsidize the construction of a downtown office tower. They write:
The proposed office building, called Strata, has spurred controversy for months. The combined tower and parking garage would cost $132 million; of that, roughly $63 million would come from public subsidies, including a direct $27 million public investment in the offices.
The editorial board is correct on their call, and while their analysis of market demand and public risk is correct, there are even more reasons to be skeptical of the developers’ claims. Part of the argument for Strata is that Kansas City needs more high-end office space that Strata would provide, but it’s hard to find evidence to support that claim.
In testimony before the Kansas City Finance and Governance Committee on June 26, 2019, a Strata developer asserted that Starbucks recently considered Kansas City for an office location [starts at 9:05]:
Jobs are being lost in Kansas City, opportunities are passing us by because we don’t physically have the space created. So I think that, uh, Starbucks is the example that gets used a lot toward the end of last year where there just was not Class A space on the shelf.
This same argument appeared in a number of outlets. FOX4 in Kansas City reported on June 26 that:
In recent months, a big employer, Starbucks, cited a lack of quality office space downtown as one factor in its decision to take about 1,500 jobs to Atlanta instead of Kansas City.
CitySceneKC, a blog funded by the pro-development subsidies Downtown Council, claimed in December 2018:
But Starbucks needed 100,000 square feet of Class A space relatively quickly, and it would take 18- to 24 months to build it in downtown KC. They went to Atlanta instead where there’s already “four- to five cranes in the air.”
Starbucks did choose Atlanta, Georgia for its new office location. But its operation looked nothing like what advocates for development subsidies claimed the company was seeking in Kansas City. They sought only 85,000 square feet and planned on only 500 new jobs, not the 100,000 square feet and 1,500 jobs alleged by Kansas City developers and their acolytes.
Note: the Atlanta job numbers were reported in August 2018, but developer sources in Kansas City kept using the inflated numbers in their blogs and comments to the media months later.
Furthermore, Kansas City and Atlanta are not in the same league. Atlanta’s metropolitan population is the country’s ninth-largest with just shy of 6 million people—2.5 times the size of Kansas City—and has grown 12.5 percent since 2010. (Kansas City’s metropolitan area is ranked the 31st largest, and has only grown 7 percent since 2010.) Atlanta is growing rapidly and is the headquarters city for 18 of the Fortune 500. (Kansas City has only one.) Atlanta is also home to the busiest airport in the United States, providing executives with direct routes to most places they might want to travel. (Incidentally, the Atlanta Journal Constitution article that detailed Starbucks investment also offered a caveat about the incentives offered to Starbucks.)
It’s also noteworthy that the “most compelling reason” for their decision, according to a July 2018 email from a senior executive at the Kansas City Area Development Council, is Starbucks already had an operation center in Atlanta and the company had a “comfort level in their ability to scale that workforce based on experience.” Also, Starbucks’ Chief Financial Officer had “strong ties” to The Big Peach. Could any of this have been overcome by more readily available office space?
Developers will always seek public handouts to build what they cannot fund through private investment. While it is understandable that Kansas City leaders look toward Denver and Atlanta and New York City, we have a long way to go before we can compete with those places. We won’t get there through subsidies—but through the long arduous work of supporting infrastructure, public safety, and education while being business friendly and an efficient steward of public funds.