Mayor James’ Remarks Regarding the Airport MOU Vote

Today, I’m proud to announce that the City Council adopted the MOU between the City and Edgemoor for a new single terminal airport. Before asking the clerk to take roll for the vote, I addressed council:

“I came into office in 2011 on the heels of a deep economic downturn and a previous administration that had, for a number of reasons, failed to effectively lead this city forward. As a result of the confluence of these two situations the residents and business community, both local and national, were convinced that Kansas City was “Closed for Business.”  There was no momentum. No reason to invest here. No reason to stay.

For the next four years, we worked hard and successfully to change that perception. Google selected us, along with KCK, as their very first Gigabit cities. Tech startups and observers raised their eyes and their curiosity. Startup Village, Think Big, Digital Sandbox, Incubators, One Million Cups, either started or became more prominent thereafter and shined a spotlight on Kansas City. As a result of that spotlight, the rest of the country – indeed the world – started to say “What’s going on in Kansas City?” Citizens who had for a long time compared KC to other places, now started to see their city talked about by outsiders and media in ways they had not heard before.

We then went on an unprecedented roll that has been and continues to be the envy of cities far and wide.  

From the start of the term, the question of “what should we do with our airport?” loomed and we started a seven year journey to address this major issue. In the interim, we set about to change our civic image.

In 2012, we hosted the world for one of the best MLB All Star games in history. We also announced plans to build what has now become the most successful streetcar starter line in the country.

In 2013, Sporting KC won the MLS cup. The Council and I fought through all of the negative voices, the politics, and doomsayers and pushed forward with the streetcar project. We also continued the then three-year-old process of trying to find a way to build a new, downtown convention hotel.

In 2014, The Royals shocked us all and won the American League Pennant and lost the first World Series, in which they had participated since 1985, in the 7th game. It took months to wipe the smiles off Kansas Citians’ faces. KC shirts, hats, underwear, socks, flags and more sprung up in every part of the city like spring flowers. We were dubbed “a city on the move.”  

In 2015, the Royals shocked the world again and this time won the World Series followed by a party attended by about 800,000 of their closest friends who celebrated without burning, breaking or destroying anything.

Downtown was changing. Things were being built. Plans to build more were in process. Tracks were being laid. Entrepreneurs were talking. Jobs were being created. Aldi’s finally arrived at 39th and Prospect. The Chamber launched the Urban Neighborhood Initiative. KC NoVa had begun. At that point, over $2 billion in major developments, ranging from housing and commercial real estate to infrastructure and capital improvements had been approved, broken ground or been completed just in the area east of Troost, south of the river, and north of 63rd Street.  

And a deal was finally struck to build a new 800-room convention hotel with no money from the city’s general fund and without the need of the city to back any bonds.

The RNC came to town to check us out as a potential site for their 2016 National Convention. As they surveyed our city, they said something had to be done about our airport.

In 2016, the Streetcar opened to great fanfare and anticipation. Since then, sales tax revenue in its TDD footprint has increased by 65% as it has carried the equivalent of about 8 times the population of this entire city over its 2 miles of track for free. During this same time, the City purchased the Linwood Shopping Center where, as we speak, the first new suburban style supermarket on the mid-eastside is well under construction, and set to open this summer.

In 2017, we took the unprecedented step of asking our residents to approve the largest General Obligation bond package in the history of the city for $800 million. We engaged in hundreds of town hall events and laid out our plan with countless residents. Kansas Citians got it and overwhelmingly approved all three questions so that we can improve our long-neglected infrastructure for the next 20 years.

And we’ve made significant progress in our social infrastructure, too.  Through Turn the Page KC, we’ve increased third grade reading proficiency from 33% in 2011 to 55% today.

Later in 2017, we culminated a six year discussion about the future of KCI with a landslide election where 76% of voting KC residents stated loud and clear that it is time for us to move forward and modernize our airport with a new single terminal. Now, after a protracted procurement process designed in large part by the independent counsel selected by the City Council and the selection of the developer, we come to this vote.

We have been here before. When we were here before, Council members had concerns about the proposed MOU and voted it down. Subsequently, we devised a process to collect and catalog what turned out to be 45 separate issues and sent the negotiating team back to the table. Edgemoor, the developer selected by the City Council, has agreed to 43 of the 45 issues raised with one of the remaining issues rejected by city staff and the other rejected by our airline partners. And Edgemoor worked hard to engage our homegrown businesses, like Trekk Design Group, Leigh & O’Kane, LLC, Olsson Associates, Taliaferro & Browne, Parson + Associates and Wellner Architects, Inc.

And now today, even after addressing the 45 allegedly final issues raised by Council, there is still some controversy. In the eleventh hour, Councilman Wagner has raised concerns about Clark Construction’s ability to perform based on his conversations with a consultant working on a totally separate and different type of project in Seattle. While his concerns may, at first blush, appear concerning, people deserve to know why they don’t have any applicability in this case.

First, Edgemoor, the party this council selected, and with whom we’ve been negotiating, and who agreed to 43 of Council’s concerns, isn’t even involved in the Seattle project. In reality, their Port Authority is the developer and AECOM is the project manager.

Second, my office made some calls to Seattle ourselves and it turns out the person whom Councilman Wagner has mostly relied upon isn’t part of the Port Authority, is not authorized to speak on behalf of the Port Authority and we have no idea what his motivations might be. Further, the spokesman for the Port Authority said these types of negotiations aren’t abnormal for complex projects like this.

Third, the type of deal they have in Seattle isn’t even close to the deal we have here. The Seattle deal is a “targeted design build” where they started with a loose budget that was subjected to project changes that expanded the budget. Basically, they got going on the project before they really knew what they wanted. For example, in this project managed by AECOM, no below ground environmental assessment was done before the start of the project. So, once they began that work they found significant levels of contamination that had to be remediated, adding both cost and time to the project.

And in the case of Seattle, the Port Authority, acting as the developer, is responsible for any cost changes to the project. In an area like Seattle, where there are dozens of cranes in the sky at any moment, those changes can be substantial.

Our approach here, design build finance, is quite different. Edgemoor, who again is not involved in Seattle where AECOM is the project manager, is our developer and is responsible for any cost changes to the project. The city is not on the hook for any overages.

These projects are not the same. Comparing the two are like comparing zebras and tigers because they both have stripes. SEA-TAC and KCI may both be airports but they’re two completely different animals.

And finally, in fairness, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Let the developer who hasn’t had what would appear to be a “bad development” cast the first stone. A quick Internet search reveals that the Branson airport sued Burns and McDonnell and others in 2013 over a $70 million runway foundation that allegedly collapsed two years after it opened.  Burns and McDonnell disagreed as they told their side of the story. AECOM was accused of not meeting its DBE goals at the New Orleans airport as recently as 2016. In 2014, a Kansas City company, STIM LLC sued AECOM for breach of contract. STIM alleged that AECOM unlawfully acquired its technical expertise on tax incentive procurement and then breached its contract by firing STIM. That lawsuit was settled by an undisclosed amount of money. AECOM was also sued for negligence on a jail project in Detroit. The $300 million jail soared to estimated costs of $391 million. It was called, “one of the costliest local government boondoggles in Michigan history.”

There is more about both of those companies I could discuss, but to what meaningful end? The reality is that projects like KCI are high stakes poker. I doubt that there is a significant developer or construction company anywhere in this country that doesn’t have some negative headlines, stories or projects that might need explaining. Heck, before Edgemoor was selected, Burns and McDonnell and AECOM privately and publicly talked  about each other as if they were fighting in a schoolyard.  After they were both rejected, however, they formed a convenient partnership and now Edgemoor is under attack.

To what end? These two companies can’t simply enter a marriage of convenience to circumvent the process; they entered the process months ago as two separate bidders. At best, these new attacks on the process and Edgemoor would only serve to target this city with a massive lawsuit, years of delay and a restart to the entire RFPQ process. Most of all, it would breach the trust with 76% of KC voters who are watching us and saying, “What in the heck are you doing?!”

We must not make this monumental mistake by taking our momentum for granted. We need only look back 6 ½ years to see what a lack of leadership can do to our city’s spirit and growth. While I’ve been in office, we have come together to solve a lot of problems and help a lot of people in our neighborhoods. We’ve done so because of the unified commitment of our city officials, community leaders, and most importantly, our citizens. It’s taken 6 ½ years to do this, but as we know from national and state political headlines of this past year, our momentum can quickly be slowed, if not halted, in a single moment by the actions of a few.

So, all of that momentum comes down to this. Are we going to keep faith with our voters, keep going and continue taking our city where we deserve to be – or are we going to signal to the world that we’ve had enough of “moving forward” and we’re content to settle with politics as usual.  Because that’s what this is. I’m the first to admit that I enjoy solving problems too much to be a good politician.  

I remember in my first term when Cindy Circo was my Mayor Pro Tem and we had a very sticky problem to solve. It was a summer night and I was on my porch with a drink and a cigar talking to Cindy on the phone and we were trying to figure out what to do.

I suggested a possible course of action when Cindy said, “Wow – that’s really surprising.”  “What?” I said. And she said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you consider a political solution to a problem.”

I thought about it for a minute and said, “You’re right – I know what we’re going to do now though. We’re going to do the right thing – not the political thing – and we’ll get this problem solved.” And we did.

That’s why when I’m asked to choose between the momentum and the future of our city versus political allegiances, the answer seems straightforward, obvious, and clear.  If I were more of a politician, the decision might not be so easy.

Voters are watching us. They have high expectations for this city now and they want to believe that we’re listening.

And with that, let’s see where we end up. Clerk, please call the roll.”

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