Wichita may spend way more than $75m on stadium development, but local news has no interest in telling you

The Wichita city council passed its 2%-sales-tax-surcharge district yesterday, in an “emergency declaration” to allow the tax to kick in starting in April, when the new Wind Surge Triple-A baseball stadium it will help fund is set to open. Show of hands, Wichita news outlets, which among you explained why it was an emergency, what the projected $13 million in tax revenue over 22 years will fund, or what would have happened if the tax district hadn’t passed?

  • KWCH-TV: “Mayor Jeff Longwell said it was necessary to pass the 2% sales tax this year. ‘So we can start collecting that tax to potentially use what its intended for which was described today to pay off various different bonds the ballpark, the amenities that are going to be down there,’ he said. Longwell’s last day in office as mayor is next Monday.” No help there, though the non-bylined story certainly implies that the “emergency” was that the mayor wanted to get this done before ending his lame-duck term.
  • KFDI-FM: “The revenue generated from the district will be used to help with the design and construction of the stadium, utilities, parking and improvements along the river corridor, as well as surrounding development on the west bank.” Except the stadium has already been designed and will be almost done with construction by April, so what’s the rush, KFDI reporter George Lawson?
  • Wichita Eagle: “Money from the sales tax hike and the increase in property taxes generated by the new development will be split between the city government and the private-sector developers. The city will get the first $10 million to help offset the cost of the new $75 million ball park. The developers will get the next $30 million to help pay for their project costs. Anything above that $40 million will be split 50-50 between the city and the developers.” So some of the money (from both sales taxes and property taxes) will go to pay for stadium costs, and the rest to subsidize surrounding development — that’s actually potentially a lot more than just the $75 million in stadium subsidies that’s previously been discussed, but it’s hard to tell without projections of how much tax revenue is at stake here, which Eagle reporters Dion Lefler and Chance Swaim don’t provide.

You know, I do my best here to report on and analyze these deals from my apartment in Brooklyn, but ultimately I’m reliant on journalists in local communities to do the initial reporting, since I don’t have the time and resources to do the legwork on basic facts of a stadium plan. In this case, I actually called and emailed the Wichita city council’s press liaison, plus emailed a city councilmember who is a friend of a FoS reader — neither has gotten any response so far, so I’m in the dark as you are on this. (We do know that the stadium is getting $40 million in STAR bonds — essentially sales tax increment financing, where any increase in state sales-tax revenue in the area gets kicked back to the stadium rather than going to public coffers — but the sales-tax surcharge is on top of that.)

Many journalists tend to shy away from running stories that say “Here’s what elected officials claim, but we don’t know if it’s true,” either because they fear it would make them look unduly skeptical or because they don’t take the time to ask the right questions or because they are afraid of challenging assertions that no one else is — but, you know, those are all things that are literally their job. When they don’t do it, we’re left with “Wichita is taking a bunch of tax money, we’re not sure how much, and giving it to somebody for something,” which is not a great way to hold elected officials accountable. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many ways to hold journalists accountable, other than publicly shaming them, so: Hey, Wichita newspeople, you can’t journalism your way out of a paper bag! That’ll show ’em.


10 comments on “Wichita may spend way more than $75m on stadium development, but local news has no interest in telling you

  1. >Many journalists tend to shy away from running stories that say “Here’s what elected officials claim, but we don’t know if it’s true,” either because they fear it would make them look unduly skeptical or because they don’t take the time to ask the right questions or because they are afraid of challenging assertions that no one else is

    I would say even more explicitly that a lot of times it is about maintaining access. A lot of what a veteran city hall reporter brings to the table (in many cases) is relationships and good standing with elected and other officials. Their value is in the fact people will answer their calls and have coffee with them and answer their questions.

    You don’t get to maintain those connections by being an honest skeptical broker. I have worked a lot with local governments, and while sometimes the paper and the “establishment” are at odds. Often they are actually in lockstep and all buddy buddy and attend the same events and have the same friends and social circle. In which cases you need to fall back on alt weeklies for tough questions (which don’t always have the professionalism to be taken seriously). Journalism has taken some hits, but credulous servile journalism was just as much of a problem 40 years ago (as your book demonstrates).

    • Yeah, that’s an excellent point. Not to mention that many reported may be writing with one eye to future jobs in the industry they cover — as the journalism industry has cut back more and more, I’m seeing increasing number of journalists using their contacts to jump to jobs doing communications for agencies they wrote about. Needless to say, that doesn’t work nearly as well if you were adversarial…

    • Juvenal: What you’ve outlined is a fundamental problem in journalism today. It’s why all elected officials, from the local politician to an incompetent windbag like Boris Johnson, can now control their message so carefully.

      No-one asks them hard questions. If they try to do so, they are “out”… as in, they never get called on again or perhaps lose their credentials and can’t even get into the room.

      While the media is generally under assault from all corners these days (and, for the most part, without justification), this is one area where I believe they have done it to themselves. Whether this is the fault of the journalists or the owners of the media outlet they work for I cannot say, but it is a significant problem.

      I try to follow independent news as much as I can… but even there, we often find interviewers acting simply as press agents for whatever quasi-gov’t official wishes to present their talking points (and typically aren’t challenged on same). That is not reporting. That is not journalism. That is a political version of a talk show… the guests are only coming on because they have something to sell, be it a book, an album or a convenient political lie.

      • The sad thing is, I don’t think most stenography journalists today even need the fear of losing access as a reason to not ask tough questions. They see their job as essentially reprinting press releases accurately, and their bosses are fine with that so long as it allows them to move quickly along to the next article and keep productivity up. So long as people keep sharing the results on Facebook and Twitter, nobody seems to mind if their journalism no longer has any journalism in it.

  2. I read your offering and the linked article. It sounds as though this sales tax increase and the associated property tax increase are only for the stadium and surrounding development, not for the city as a whole.

    Given this fact, the tax increase is to be bourn only by the people who attend events at the stadium or frequent the development.

    I view this as a win for the city’s taxpayers given the tax increase is completely voluntary.

    • That’s the argument for tax increment financing, and is a myth. In fact, siphoning off tax revenue from districts right around a development project invariably cannibalizes money the public would get with or without the project:

      https://www.goodjobsfirst.org/accountable-development/tax-increment-financing
      http://www.fieldofschemes.com/2017/07/12/12668/no-i-dont-think-the-38m-pawsox-stadium-subsidy-plan-is-a-win-win-heres-why-not/

      • Neil,

        Didn’t you know, literally no money would be spent in that area without the project. And the money that is spent there wouldn’t have been spent on other things in town either. It would just be buried in a pit and ritually burned to make charcoal.

        That is the reality we face if we don’t subsidize my new Baskin Robbins franchise and the attached 150 unit market rate housing development!

        • Hopefully your Baskin Robbins has the necessary floor space for the latest reincarnation of the Wichita Wings (indoor soccer league team). Soon to play in Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) 2. Given Hartman Arena’s huge capacity, the average attendance to a MASL 2 match, their going to need a right-size fit for the 50-100 fans they will draw.

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