A construction site located at 39th Street and State Line Road. Buildings belonging to the University of Kansas Health System are visible in the background.
The Jamestown housing development, under construction at 39th Street and State Line Road, has received tax exemptions from RideKC Development Corp. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

From the Power and Light District and midtown Costco to the planned KC Current stadium in the rapidly developing Berkley Riverfront, economic development and tax incentive decisions leave an indelible mark on Kansas City.

These decisions help bring jobs, housing and sparkly new arenas, but they can also have consequences for taxing jurisdictions like Kansas City Public Schools, which has lost out on millions of dollars in revenue due to incentivized development. 

If used improperly, tax incentive projects can pit municipalities and states against one another. This phenomenon in the Kansas City area has attracted the attention of researchers who study the role of economic development in the city’s so-called “border war.” 

For these and other reasons, the use of tax incentives has become contentious among government agencies, yet the workings of incentives are often mysterious to members of the public.

To help Kansas City area residents understand this powerful policy tool and learn how to make their voices heard in this process, The Beacon prepared a guide to civic engagement at three Kansas City organizations that handle economic development, including tax incentive tools.

Economic Development Corp. handles city-run tax incentive programs

Kansas City’s Economic Development Corp. (EDC) manages most of the city’s economic development tools, including tax incentives. Its programs include an alphabet soup of acronyms, such as the Enhanced Enterprise Zones (EEZ), Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority (LCRA) and tax-increment financing (TIF). The EDC also shares its physical space with the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority (PIEA), although it does not have governing authority over it.

All of its programs have meetings that are open to the public. Agendas are usually published by Friday the week before.

Of its tax incentive programs, TIF projects tend to be the biggest and highest profile. These projects are also easier for the public to follow because they must also receive approval through the Kansas City Council’s Neighborhood Planning and Development Committee and the full City Council. 

“If you’re talking about tools in the toolbox, TIF is kind of the economic development sledgehammer,” said Dan Moye, the executive director of LCRA and Enhanced Enterprise Zones at EDC. “It is the biggest tool, it has the most power in terms of what they can collect from taxes or can save on taxes, so you tend to see that used for very large projects.”

PIEA and LCRA, on the other hand, are more “nimble,” Moye said, and can be used for smaller projects, though they do see larger projects from time to time. 

LCRA can only issue 10-year tax abatements, as opposed to the 25-year abatements that are seen in other programs and agencies, and it’s often used for low-income housing developments, single-family projects and developments on the east side of the city.

Moye said that the process can be complicated to understand — even after 15 years working in economic development, even he still has misunderstandings during meetings.

For this reason, EDC often holds office hours at community centers to educate the public about how it works. To learn about upcoming events, he encourages community members to sign up for the EDC’s newsletter found at the bottom of its website. They’re also welcome to call the office to ask questions outside of meetings.

During meetings, the public is welcome to ask impromptu questions about projects being discussed without needing to sign up in advance, as is the case for some other agencies.

“These deals are complex enough that even somebody who knows what they’re looking for could have a question in the moment,” he said.

RideKC Development Corp. handles tax exemptions through its START program

RideKC has recently entered into the economic development world through its transit-oriented community initiatives and its newly created RideKC Development Corp (RKCDC).

Transit-oriented development is a concept receiving national attention, with federal grants available for things like new transit lines, bike lanes and walkability upgrades to sidewalks. 

Through its START program, which stands for “sustaining transportation and reinvesting together,” the transit agency has also begun to issue tax exemptions to developers who meet transit-oriented criteria. These criteria include low parking ratios and ground-level commercial spaces.

Both RideKC and RKCDC host monthly virtual meetings that are open to the public. Projects are initially reviewed at RKCDC board meetings, where they may recommend projects for approval by the RideKC Board of Commissioners. 

Community members who wish to provide a public comment at one of these meetings must send a request by email to greglam@clrkc.com by 4 p.m. the day before. Comments are limited to three minutes and are usually reserved for the beginning of the meeting.

The meeting agendas are not always available prior to the meeting, but if published they appear on the RideKC website. For RKCDC’s Feb. 8 meeting, the agenda still was not published online when the meeting ended.

Port Authority of Kansas City primarily handles Berkley Riverfront development

The Port Authority of Kansas City (Port KC) is a state-established economic development agency whose board members are appointed by the mayor of Kansas City.

Though Port KC handles a variety of industrial development projects, such as the $500 million Missouri River Terminal, its primary role for the past several years has been the development of the Berkley Riverfront neighborhood, along the Missouri River near downtown.

Development projects in this neighborhood include several housing developments with ground-floor retail, as well as a boutique hotel and the new KC Current stadium. The goal is to create a modern, walkable neighborhood that is accessible to the rest of the city via pedestrian bridges and a streetcar extension.

Two different committees hold monthly public meetings for Port KC, along with the regular Board of Commissioners meetings. Of those three public meetings, the development committee is the one most geared towards public engagement.

During an interview in July, Port KC’s president and CEO Jon Stephens said this meeting is when developers present their proposals and answer questions about the details. Questions could include the project’s amenities, the estimated cost of rent and availability of affordable housing or the developer’s history.

“The development committee is where it’s sort of a deep public dive,” Stephens told The Beacon. “It is the data points; it’s the who, what, when, where, why and how. And then there is fully open engagement, public questions and public commentary.”

At general board meetings, the public is allowed to provide testimony at the top of the agenda, whereas public comment is open and ongoing throughout development committee meetings.

Meeting agendas are posted on the Port KC website at least 24 hours in advance, and the development committee and board of commissioners meetings are typically held from 3 to 5 p.m., usually on Mondays. Finance and administration committee meetings are held from 8:30 to 10 a.m., usually on Fridays.

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Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter. After graduating from Seattle University, Josh attended Columbia Journalism School, earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism....