The Economic Development Corporation of Kansas City (EDC) seems unable to provide meaningful assistance to city leaders regarding economic development policy. While questions about its efficacy have swirled for years, recent reports suggest the organization needs a top-to-bottom overhaul.
The EDC’s primary job seems to be the promotion of economic development subsidies in Kansas City. It lobbies on behalf of such subsidies before the city council and is funded largely through fees collected on projects that are approved to receive taxpayer subsidies. Nothing is wrong with any of that, in a vacuum.
The problem is that the EDC is also funded out of the city’s general fund to provide staffing assistance to the city’s several economic development agencies, such as the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Commission, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA), and the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA). The EDC even assists PortKC, which many fear is facilitating and approving subsidies that elected leaders would oppose. It is important to note that the members of these commissions and authorities are not paid and are free to vote as they see fit. But the staff they depend upon for advice and council have a financial interest in every vote. The more subsidies these agencies hand out, the fatter the EDC’s bottom line—and the EDC’s budget has doubled since 2000.
In 2015, for example, $1 million of the EDC’s $5 million organizational budget was funded through the Kansas City general fund, but $3 million came from fees the EDC received from the TIFs it approved. So the EDC is getting three times more money from TIF projects than from the general fund.
Show-Me Institute analysts have published concerns about this before, and others—including those at the Kansas City Business Journal—have as well. Steve Vockrodt and Steve Roberts wrote this in the Business Journal back in 2010:
Among the options the EDC executive committee has explored are consolidating boards that deal with tax incentives—the Tax Increment Financing Commission, Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority and others—and having the city finance the agency to remove the potential for conflict that exists because the EDC is partly financed by revenue and fees from development projects.
The manifestations of the EDC’s conflict of interest are numerous. Consider the following:
- Back in 2015 members of the TIF Commission were so frustrated with the lack of financial transparency and professional services that they threatened leaving the EDC. Mayor James and the city council intervened and changed the process. TIF recipients now pay fees to city hall instead of the EDC, and financial reporting and auditing of TIF projects is now contracted out, instead of being handled by the EDC.
- The EDC apparently adheres to no long-term vision of what is best for Kansas City. Instead, it merely acts to assess each developer request as they are submitted. The EDC’s online application form suggests no particular policy goals that subsidies are meant to achieve, only that “Applications will be reviewed by EDC staff to determine the best course of action.” The recent discovery that at least one hotel was seeking a subsidy to protect itself from the overdevelopment of hotels suggests that no one at the EDC is taking a long-term view.
- The recent Strata deal—in which developers claimed a downtown office tower project was infeasible without public subsidies—was reworked by the city council to dramatically reduce overall subsidies and remove them completely for the tower itself. One wonders whether the EDC is capable and willing to substantively vet developer applications for subsidies.
- Back in 2017 when Kansas City was trying to measure the value of its economic development policies, the then-CEO of the EDC wrote to the city hall staffer overseeing the study:
We need a report that explains and supports the city’s economic development policy in the context of local and regional competition. Such a report would be helpful in dealing with the KCMO Library and citizen petitioners interfering with an orderly eco-devo policy.
Kansas City spends at least $175 million each year on economic development subsidies. The organization charged with helping city leaders discern good subsidies from bad has demonstrated it is not up to the task, not looking out for the interests of Kansas City, and possessing an attitude of self-preservation that creates significant conflicts of interest. The EDC’s role should be significantly reformed or discarded altogether.