Unified Government defends Village West development practices
From inside one of the very businesses she contends gives her community "a sense of pride," Unified Government of Wyandotte County mayor Carol Marinovich ardently defended her administration's practices in luring major retailers and tourist attractions to the Village West tourism and entertainment district.
"We did exactly what the Kansas Legislature wanted -- promote economic development," Marinovich said. She added, "who can say we did anything other than that?"
The comments came during a news conference Wednesday at the Great Wolf Lodge in Kansas City, Kan. and were in response to findings of a legislative post audit, released earlier that day in Topeka, which called into question some elements of the county's practice in using STAR bonds to develop Village West and the Kansas Speedway.
According to the audit, "no one can argue that the Kansas Speedway and Village West redevelopment projects haven't been enormously successful at bringing significant development to western Wyandotte County." But, "this success doesn't mean that good judgment, decision making and oversight shouldn't be exercised to ensure that STAR bond monies are spent wisely, reasonably and only for the purpose allowed and intended."
The audit cited several Unified Government missteps in using the STAR bonds. Those missteps included:
- Billing $450,000 in fees when it issued bonds for the Speedway and Village West projects. The state authorized the bonds for economic development, but in this case the fees "represent an unnecessary transfer of money from the state to the Unified Government."
- Spending $28 million for expenses that go beyond what legislators envisioned when they passed Village West legislation. The price tag includes $15 million for wildlife exhibits within Cabela's, plans to spend $8.5 million for robotic dinosaurs for a theme restaurant and using STAR bond money to pay consultants hired by businesses locating within Village West.
The report was also critical of excessive fees charged by developers and controversial charges by some of the principal merchants, including Cabela's and Nebraska Furniture Mart.
Unified Government officials said they complied completely in using the bonds for the Village West, a major economic development coup for Wyandotte County and an area that approximately 11 million people visit per year.
STAR bond funding permits channeling sales tax revenues back to developers as an incentive for major projects such as those in the Village West area.
Marinovich, who arrived at the press conference from a meeting in Florida to recruit the NASCAR Hall of Fame to Wyandotte County, said the audit's review was politically motivated and contrary to the common good of her community.
"There are critics, but many of them . . . have an agenda and it's political," Marinovich said. She continued, "The success of the Village West and Kansas Speedway is an indictment of the failed good 'ol boy structure of Wyandotte County."
Former Kansas Lt. Governor Gary Sherrer, who reviewed development of Village West at the state level, also defended Unified Government's practices. Sherrer said Unified Government lived up to its obligations.
"They never told me anything they didn't do," Sherrer said.
"I think it is a tragedy that we're acting like something bad occurred here."
Though involved in the development of Village West while Lt. Governor, Sherrer said those conducting the audit did not consult him.
He said language in the legislation used when the STAR bonds were approved is broad and it would be difficult to decipher the exact legislative intent.
"There is nothing in this document that really tells the story of what was happening when this passed," he said. He said amenities like those criticized in the report were necessary for developing a tourism district such as Village West.
"The last thing we wanted was to stick a racetrack out in the middle of a field and walk away from it," Sherrer said.
Sherrer, like Unified Government officials Wednesday, said the Village West was a revolutionary development for Kansas and for Wyandotte County.