With the World Series in full swing, I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite sports movies, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, he will come.” I wouldn’t be surprised if these same words were in the minds of Kansas economic development officials when they successfully recruited the 117-year old American Royal from Missouri to Kansas earlier this week. But the Royal’s move isn’t just bad news for Missourians; it’s also terrible policy for Kansans.
The Royal is a Kansas City institution, one whose fall catalog of rodeos, barbeque, and livestock competitions herald the start of winter and the region’s holiday season. Thanks to tens of millions in sales tax revenue STAR Bonds, those traditions will soon move away from the Royal’s current digs in Kansas City, Missouri, to nearby Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas’s $80 million contribution to the project is about double what American Royal was publicly trying to get out of Kansas City, Missouri, officials just two years ago to keep the Royal in the city’s West Bottoms.
But did Kansas even have to “build it” with taxpayer money to entice the American Royal to move? The Royal’s brand is defined by its history in the Kansas City area—even Kansas City’s baseball team is named after the organization—so it’s safe to say that American Royal wasn’t going to move its operations to Texas or Florida.
But setting aside for now the important question of whether this is an appropriate role of government (it isn’t), Wyandotte County has been seeing significant economic growth that would have made it an attractive landing spot for the Royal anyway. More families are moving there today than were coming 10 years ago. In 2004, 1,871 tax filers—bringing more than $57.6 million dollars of income—moved to Wyandotte; fast-forward to 2014, and tax filers were pouring in 25% faster, bringing in around $74 million with them.
Wyandotte County was “building it”—a functioning economy that has, in contrast to its basket-case reputation, attracted investments from Google, Amazon and others in recent years—before Kansas’s $80 million incentive was ever put on the table.
But Wyandotte’s recent successes don’t justify Kansas’s decision to subsidize the American Royal move. Indeed, the state’s $80 million giveaway has all the hallmarks of bad policy and poor judgement from Kansas’s political class. The American Royal was already getting cheaper land and a prime location close to its support bases in Johnson County, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri. The tens of millions in taxpayer support is just the KC Strip on top of this gravy train sundae.
Kansas? Sure, it gets a talking point in the battle for the economic soul of the region, but it’s a point that is likely to be eclipsed by the next round of billion-dollar business-poaching that’s certain to come.
While the Royal’s decision could be seen as a slap in the face of its historical roots, Kansas City, Missouri isn’t exactly a victim in the matter, either. The city has a terrible track record of poaching Kansas businesses in precisely the same way and is an equally bad actor in the billion-dollar tax-incentive border war that has bedeviled the region, creating no strategic advantages on either side of the border.
To put it delicately, the bull manure is blowing onto taxpayers from both sides of State Line Road. It’s time to end this tax incentive rodeo and finally pursue a mature economic development policy—one that doesn’t force taxpayers to build the fields of their politicians’ dreams.