When the public hearing on Derby’s proposed dinosaur park takes place July 12, Robert Winn will be there to speak against it.
A longtime Derby resident, Winn is perhaps the most passionate opponent of the concept. He’s a retired accountant, and, drawing on his background, he said the economic impact presented by park supporters doesn’t add up.
“I just don’t believe the numbers,” he said.
They include projections of a $122 million statewide economic impact, 868 new jobs and a $22.9 million annual payroll.
Winn said he’s going to jam in as much of his data showing how the $159 million project’s estimates are off in the five minutes he’s allotted and give more details in written comments to the city council, which has to vote on whether to approve the STAR bond project plan submitted by the developer.
The STAR, or Sales Tax and Revenue bonds concept, allows Kansas municipalities such as Derby to issue bonds to finance the development of major commercial, entertainment and tourism areas and use the sales tax revenue generated by the development to pay them off.
Along with the park, called “Field Station: Dinosaurs,” the project plans to incorporate a medical facility along with restaurant and retail outlets.
Unlike some local high-profile community issues, such as transgender bathrooms in the schools, there is no organized group opposed to the project, but Winn said he knows of people who are skeptical of it.
Many are simply ambivalent, he said, and once they find out there’s no direct impact on them, are not that interested in the inner workings of the bond district.
The majority of citizens don’t know what the financial side of the development is about, he said, but if they did, they might have second thoughts.
City Manager Kathy Sexton fully expects there to be opposition at the public hearing – and that’s fine with her. As she has said recently, “all voices” are welcome to take part in the process.
While there will be no increased taxes for Derby residents because of the bond district, Sexton said there may be philosophical opposition.
“Some people just don’t believe the government should be helping businesses out,” she said. “There are people who are opposed to all types of incentives.”
However, businesses already are getting incentives from the state, she said, mainly the tax relief that was put into place in 2012.
There may also be other business people who think the development will adversely impact their trade, Sexton said, taking customers away. While the developers have stated their case that the project will help the city as a whole, not everyone may believe that, she said.
Mark Staats, president and CEO of the Derby Chamber of Commerce, is well familiar with arguments against the project.
“You hear about ‘fairness,’ that I had to start my business without a leg up,” he said.
But incentives, he said, is how the economic development game is played throughout the country. Staats did stress that the Chamber itself isn’t taking a stand on this issue, but is interested in a healthy business environment in Derby.
Visitor projections questioned
One of Winn’s major points is that people need to look at the bigger, overall picture, not just how the project would affect Derby.
In that regard, he objects to some state sales tax revenue from businesses already in the STAR bond district being diverted if the project is approved.
The district extends along North Rock Road south to Meadowlark, including prominent retailers such as Hobby Lobby and Dillons.
“That will make it more difficult for the state to balance its budget and fund public education,” he said of using tax revenue from those businesses for the bonds. “I think that’s a valid argument.”
Winn said “we’re going to give up millions to developers.”
The situation, he said, is not unlike getting a federal grant, wherein the recipients may say it’s “free money.”
“Well, where do they think that federal money comes from?” he asked. “It’s from your taxes.”
Sexton is familiar with that issue, but said people taking on that argument need to look at the future.
“This is a short-term cost for a long-term gain,” she said. More tax revenue will be flowing in the future if the district is approved, but if it isn’t, there won’t be any gain.
Winn also said the “demographics don’t add up” and doubts the number of people projected to come from northern Oklahoma to Derby will actually happen.
‘Don’t punish Derby’
The dinosaur park already built in northern New Jersey is helped by the massive population base around it and its closeness to New York City, he said.
“Downtown Wichita is not Times Square,” he said.
Winn is not totally opposed to the STAR bond concept, but said it doesn’t make sense for Derby. It does in the Kansas counties bordering Missouri as the district can bring in new revenue from the neighboring states.
Derek Frazier, owner and operator of Derby Bowl, also is skeptical of projected numbers, including one stating that it will attract 1.3 million visitors, including one-third of that number from outside a 100-mile radius.
“I just don’t see how they hit those,” he said of the visitor counts.
He also has no objection to the project if the developers were doing it all on their own, but by using STAR bonds, they can undertake it without the challenges other businesses face.
As he put it: “Build me a bowling alley without any debt.”
Like Winn, Frazier doesn’t necessarily oppose STAR bonds being used where he said it is intended to be, such as undeveloped areas that need an economic boost. That would include Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area, he said. But Derby’s North Rock Road corridor is not such an undeveloped area, he said.
There are valid reasons, however, for picking Derby, said developer Rick Worner, who has worked on six other STAR bond projects.
“It is a growing city that is part of a larger metropolitan area and it has excellent access to interstates and major highways to bring visitors to the area” he said.
Having a STAR bond incentive is a key element, he said.
And the STAR bond law was written for the whole state, not just the Kansas City, Kan., area, say others, such as Sexton.
The city of Derby, Sexton said, is simply playing by the rules set forth by the state.
“If you don’t agree with STAR bonds, then take it up with the Legislature, but don’t punish Derby for a program that exists at the state level,” Sexton said.