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Tax to support Chiefs, Royals stadium projects exposes divisions in Kansas City



Tax to support Chiefs, Royals stadium projects exposes divisions in Kansas City

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In 1969, when Kansas City faced a funding gap for local summer programs, Ewing Kauffman came to the rescue. The pharmaceutical magnate had started the Royals that year as an expansion franchise, giving the city a new baseball team after the A’s had jilted the town for Oakland.

Kauffman announced a partnership with the YMCA to fund baseball and softball teams, a choral group and other programs for inner-city high school kids. When a friend told Denise Brown, then a teenager on the city’s East Side, that kids in the programs received free tickets, Brown joined the drill team. She performed at Municipal Stadium between doubleheaders and became a fan for life.

Yet March 19, she disrupted Royals brass at a listening session at Arrowhead Stadium wearing the colors of an opposing team: the yellow and black of KC Tenants, an influential 10,000-member tenants rights and housing advocacy group. “In this crowd, people want to know,” she asked, “why should us working people subsidize billionaires?”

On Tuesday, the Royals and Chiefs are asking residents of Jackson County, Mo., which includes much of the Kansas City metro area and the stadium complex that houses the teams, to vote on a sales tax that would pay for a new downtown baseball stadium and for renovations at Arrowhead Stadium, where the Chiefs play. The teams have poured $3 million into a campaign committee supporting the tax, and John Sherman, the majority owner of the Royals, was knocking on doors on a recent Saturday to get out the vote. At the end of a pro-stadiums ad, Patrick Mahomes makes an appeal to Kansas Citians: “Let’s keep this rolling,” he says. Who could say no to a two-time MVP with three Super Bowl rings?

But in late March, local TV stations reported a poll indicating voters favored the stadium tax by just one percentage point, with 7 percent of voters still undecided. The path to the election has revealed class divisions, ignited complaints about property values and opened rifts between jocks and artists. It underscores how public financing plans are facing new headwinds as pro sports franchises across the country consider new stadiums or upgrades. Diverse political groups, skeptical of how much cities benefit from investing tax dollars in sports franchises, have demanded accountability from teams and mounted organized resistance campaigns.

For opponents, the vote is about more than the stadiums. It’s about who Kansas City is for.

THAT THE TEAMS COULD face rejection seemed remote when the Royals started publicly discussing a downtown stadium in 2021. But problems mounted as negotiations stalled between the team and Jackson County executive Frank White (D), who has a complicated history with the Royals: He was a second baseman on the 1985 World Series championship team, is a member of the team’s Hall of Fame, and he worked in the broadcast booth before being let go in 2011.

In 2006, voters in Jackson County approved a ⅜-cent sales tax to fund work on the current stadiums through 2031. Last summer, to help fund the new ballpark and the Arrowhead improvements, the Royals proposed a 40-year deal for a ⅜-cent sales tax, and they say White delayed the negotiations. White told The WashingtonPost he was trying to get a better deal for the county.

Ultimately, the Royals and Chiefs began to negotiate with county legislators, who voted, 7-2, in January to override a veto from White and put a stadium question on the April ballot. Manny Abarca, a Democratic legislator who has helped lead negotiations, called the process “challenging, obstructed and backwards,” laying blame on White.

In the upcoming election, voters will be asked to repeal the 2006 tax and pay a ⅜-cent sales tax for 40 years, which would total about $2 billion, to partially fund a new baseball stadium and renovate Arrowhead. But when the terms of the ballot question were finalized in January, the scope of the construction plans the tax would finance remained murky. The Royals didn’t announce a location for their stadium and a possible entertainment district until Feb. 13, when they described a site in the artsy Crossroads neighborhood downtown. And the Chiefs didn’t share plans for their renovation until Feb. 28.

Even so, the tax garnered support from unions representing stadium workers, business leaders and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas (D), who said quality venues and events to mattered for Kansas City’s “bottom line,” helping the city fund “all the issues we have each and every day.” (Last week, along with Crossroads residents, Lucas convinced the team to reduce the stadium’s planned footprint.) Opponents include Kauffman Stadium nostalgists and the Committee Against New Royals Stadium Taxes, which was concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the contract that would guarantee the teams stay in Jackson County.

Crossroads residents contend the Royals didn’t adequately communicate their plan, and they fear the stadium will cause rents to spike and spoil the neighborhood’s vibe — “diluting and probably displacing … that art community and that artisan community,” said Rick Johnson, who has played music in the Crossroads for decades.

The teams also didn’t release county community benefits agreements until late March.

To city councilman Johnathan Duncan, the entire process has lacked transparency. In his office on the 22nd floor of city hall, he pointed to a document regarding changes to a running trail. The approximately $2 million project would mostly affect a tennis court and parking lot. After four public meetings and hours of private meetings with affected residents, Duncan said, he and the other council member in his district were still seeking consensus. “That’s the level of public engagement we do,” he said, contrasting it with the stadium plans.

“In my view, [the teams] consider themselves a public good and a foregone conclusion that the people are going to see them that way,” he added. “And I think they’re facing a very strong reality that times are different.”

BROWN, A RETIRED TEACHER, still feels at home in Kansas City. But over the past few years, her rent increased beyond her pension’s cost-of-living adjustment, beyond what she was willing to pay. She has been living with a friend while looking for something better.

It wasn’t always like this. The National Association of Home Builders declared Kansas City the most affordable metro area in the country in 1995. In the past few years, Kansas City has ranked between No. 77 to No. 122 on the list. It has an affordable housing deficit of 64,000 units, and last summer, a study found it had the highest year-over-year rent increase of any large metro in the country.

The situation gave rise to groups such as KC Tenants, Stand Up KC and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom. KC Tenants’ members, diverse in age and class, have shown up to council meetings and hearings for developers seeking tax incentives in large numbers — usually in matching yellow T-shirts with a bull logo. In 2022, their voter outreach helped the city pass a bond measure to deposit $50 million into an affordable housing fund. In 2023, several candidates they endorsed won election to the city council, including Duncan, a KC Tenants member.

But the group’s core function, University of Missouri Kansas City sociology professor Michelle Smirnova said, is organizing renters who face rent hikes or unacceptable living conditions, bringing community to people who would otherwise be isolated. “When something comes up that [KC Tenants] have identified as harming some of their base, they’re able to mobilize really quickly because they have these long-standing, enduring relationships,” she said.

More than a year ago, the Royals reached out to KC Tenants and other groups, seeking to establish a dialogue about community benefits agreements for the proposed stadium. But serious negotiations didn’t start until the past few weeks. In late March, the teams agreed to spend about $260 million in the community over the next 40 years. Some groups, concerned about rents rising near the stadium, left the negotiating table, frustrated by the teams’ unwillingness to respond to specific requests and guarantee an allotment of funding for affordable housing. One community member involved in the negotiations said the groups’ exodus pressured the teams to commit more than they originally wanted.

“The Royals can’t solve every problem, and they don’t have unlimited money,” said Sly James, a former Kansas City mayor hired by the political committee supporting the Royals and Chiefs. “And so they come up with enough money to do some good things and try to make a difference in people’s lives.”

Tara Raghuveer, a co-founder of KC Tenants, said she started meeting casually with Royals staff over a year ago. In late January, the groups met for a formal session. The Tenants said they asked about the stadium’s location, how public funding would be used and why the Royals needed it. They said the team officials didn’t provide specific answers.

The Royals said they tried to engage with the Tenants, but the group didn’t answer their questions and, after requesting a meeting with Sherman, later declined it. (Raghuveer said the date offered, in late March, was too close to the election.) The sides stopped communicating, and the Tenants did not send a proposal with requests or demands for the community benefits agreement. They believed the Royals were not being transparent.

“It’s just a very basic rule of negotiation that you have to have accurate and complete information about what the other side is working with before a negotiation can be real, before it can be done in good faith,” Raghuveer said. “If you don’t have that information from the jump, it’s a bad faith negotiation.”

In February, the Tenants voted to oppose the ballot measure. They questioned why Kansas City taxpayers — who have subsidized professional sports since the middle of the 20th century, part of the estimated $33 billion of public money spent on North American stadiums from 1970 to 2020 — should fund the stadium construction. The Royals and Chiefs say they each generate thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars per year. If the new tax passes, they’ve promised to spend hundreds of millions on the stadiums, plus cover insurance costs and return a park levy they’ve collected for decades, giving millions more per year to the county.

But the Tenants have stressed that past circumstances shouldn’t dictate the future. “To us, organizing is about changing the conditions of what is possible,” said Magda Werkmeister, a member of the group.

After voting on their position, the Tenants started to organize: canvassing on Saturdays, convening two forums last week to hear how Kansas Citians envisioned their city, interrupting stadium listening sessions and unveiling a “Vote No” banner on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. The group also circulated a TV ad, part of $125,000 it’s spending on the campaign, and mailed about 55,000 “Vote No” postcards.

James described the Tenants’ opposition as “unfortunate” and said they hadn’t done anything to improve the deal for their members. But he said they’ve had a positive impact on Kansas City in the past few years.

“But being positive doesn’t mean that everything you do, say and want is accurate or doable,” James said.

IN LATE MARCH, a city obsessed with the on-field showings of the Royals and Chiefs shifted its focus to the ballot question. Abarca, the county legislator, held a public meeting to display the community benefits agreements. A bar in the Crossroads hosted musicians, artists and an esteemed chef to elegize the neighborhood. Sherman discussed the stadium plan in the 18th and Vine jazz district.

In late 2022, he said at a listening session that the Royals wouldn’t leave Kansas City, Mo. But last week, both teams stressed relocation was possible in an open letter from their campaign group to Jackson County legislators.

Kansas City most recently lost a major sports franchise, the NBA’s Kings, in 1985. Kathy Nelson, president and CEO of the Kansas City Sports Commission, was a high-schooler and performed in the Kings’ pep band. She doesn’t want to feel that sting again and see the city lose economic strength and a major part of its identity.

“We can go overseas now, and if you wear a KC shirt, they know what Kansas City is,” Nelson said. “And it’s not because — and I love to read — it’s not because of our library. It’s because our sports teams have put us on the map.”

Brown is less concerned about losing teams. She wouldn’t be surprised if they just crossed into Kansas. Another member of KC Tenants, Justin Stein, thinks they’re bluffing. “I think any decision about how to use public money that is based on and grounded in fear and manipulation is going to be a bad decision,” he said.

In February, Stein helped organize a group of tenants at a building where most residents live off Social Security. When the group first posed for a photo to commemorate the union at a nearby community center, it didn’t feel right. They were preparing to confront their property management and wanted to display strength. So somebody grabbed a cardboard cutout of Mahomes, adding an MVP to the group.

“I think that shows folks really do love their sports teams,” Stein said. “And everybody that I’m talking to still doesn’t like the idea of the sales tax.”

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