Even with wine, consensus on KCI's future is hard to come by

A "Flights of Wine" networking and discussion event promoting a single terminal at Kansas City International Airport featured an address by Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
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A "Flights of Wine" networking and discussion event promoting a single terminal at Kansas City International Airport featured an address by Joe Reardon, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
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Government & Politics

Can city leaders sell a new KCI in time for November vote?

By Bill Turque And Steve Vockrodt

The Kansas City Star

October 01, 2017 07:00 AM

Michael Kirkpatrick, knocking on Northland doors for the KCI campaign, had to skip the finer talking points. He knew he needed to get his pitch in quickly, before the dogs took over.

“Basically we’re just trying to give people the heads up to vote yes on Question 1,” the paid canvasser told Vivian Dennison on the doorstep of her home in Sherwood Estates, a neighborhood of sturdy split levels and ranches.

Dennison, a retired property manager who just turned 70, said she wasn’t sure how she’ll vote on the new privately financed single terminal.

“I like the old airport,” she said, as her rescue Shih Tzu and retriever mix protested the interruption. “It’s the easiest one to fly in and out of.”

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As the campaign for Question 1 gears up for a five-week sprint to Nov. 7, Dennison’s affinity for the “three horseshoes,” opened in 1972, is one of several hurdles advocates must clear.

Neighbor Mary Harrison, 58, is bothered by the contentious selection process, one that began in May with Mayor Sly James’ attempt to award Burns & McDonnell, the “hometown team,” a no-bid contract for the $1 billion project. Curtis Kelly, 46, is disappointed that Edgemoor, a Maryland firm, was selected.

Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who will be the face of the campaign, insists that the machinations surrounding who will build the terminal won’t matter.

“I don’t think regular voters give a damn,” he said. “That was great fodder for the newspaper, great fodder for the insiders.”

James’ contention is backstopped by a poll — conducted just the City Council approved Edgemoor on Sept. 21.

The survey, commissioned by the Dover Group, the Philadelphia firm running the KCI campaign, found that just 13 percent of respondents said they have heard mostly negative information about the single-terminal plan.

In the poll, 51 percent of 503 likely voters favored a new terminal while 45 percent were against. A summary of the poll, circulated by Dover consultant Mark Nevins to key surrogates, called the margin “razor thin” and left the campaign with “little room for error.”

Nevins, asked for comment, said he would not discuss internal polling.

Other political professionals say the single-terminal plan is at risk. For city leaders much is at stake. James is placing his prestige and remaining political capital on the line for what is likely his last major initiative as mayor.

For the business community, defeat almost certainly means it will be years before it gets another opportunity to transform KCI into the sleek new portal it covets.

“People were uncertain about this to start with. I don't think we've done anything to win their confidence,” said Councilwoman Teresa Loar, who voted in favor of Edgemoor despite skepticism about a new KCI in her Northland base.

“What I kind of found over the last few weeks is people are upset with the process and they blame the mayor and council,” said Travis Smith, a principal with the political consulting firm Axiom Strategies.

In contrast to the survey by the pro-KCI campaign, recent polling by Axiom holds less optimism; Smith said 44 percent approve of a new terminal.

“Could you really move from 44 to (a majority)?” Smith wonders. “Theoretically, I guess you can, if you raise an ungodly amount of money and have little to no opposition.”

For James, the bellwether precinct is his barber shop, 7 Oaks Barber & Beauty Salon on East 39th St., where he said no one cares about the bumpy process.

“When I went to get my hair cut the other day nobody said a word about that,” James said of the disarray. “They did say. ‘Hey, are we going to get a new terminal?’”

What are voters saying?

Interviews with potential voters around the city last week reflected strong feelings pro-and-con, comfort with the status quo and ambivalence.

Joyce Walker, who lives in southeast Kansas City’s Marlborough East neighborhood, said the current KCI, which does not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, is a nightmare for the disabled. She favors a new single terminal.

“I won’t fly out of KCI anymore,” said Walker, 64, who has been slowed by strokes and uses a cane. “It’s a joke.”

Lynn Hindley, a brand manager from Waldo, was on the fence before she heard Kansas City Chamber chief executive Joe Reardon at a “Flights of Wine” event in the Northland last Wednesday, part of the campaign’s attempt to mobilize frequent-flying millennials.

She said she first envisioned the new terminal as a vast Denver or Dallas-sized venue that would lack the curb-to-gate convenience many Kansas Citians enjoy.

Then Hindley heard Reardon explain that while the current cakewalk would be no more, it will be replaced by other conveniences, including more plentiful parking. It will be more like Love Field, Dallas’ smaller second airport.

“Now I would be more inclined to vote for it,” Hindley said.

On the city’s east side, community leaders recognize the economic potential of the project, but are skeptical it will generate the promised jobs and economic opportunity.

“On the east side we have a saying. What we’re told, what we’re sold and what we get are three different things,” said activist Joe Jackson, president of the mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Council

“Don’t sell us something saying there’s jobs and then start breaking ground and there are no jobs.”

Others described disappointment about promises in the past that never materialized.

“There are so many people who are tired,” said Marquita Brockman Taylor, who heads the Santa Fe Area Council Neighborhood Council. “They’re tired of going out and voting and what’s the result? You can see it in the numbers. People aren’t voting.”

City leaders see hope for KCI in the passage in April of an $800 million bond package. Its prospects appeared uncertain — it came with a property tax increase — but voters gave it a strong majority.

One of the strengths of the bond package was that it offered a little something to everybody. Who didn’t drive over a street that needed repaving? But a new airport is not necessarily considered a must-have.

And there’s still Kansas Citians’ love of KCI convenience: The public likes the venerable airport just the way it is.

A poll released by James last year showed that 39 percent of residents thought a new KCI terminal should be a pressing priority, while 51 percent disagreed. The anemic support caused James to abandon plans for an August 2016 vote.

The city’s 2016-17 survey of citizen satisfaction shows just over 67 percent are happy with the airport, down slightly over last year but still second only to police and fire service, which sit at 77 percent.

That’s also much higher than the 51 percent (of those who had an opinion) who said they were satisfied with the city’s elected leadership.

What’s the campaign’s strategy?

The team that helped elect James twice and pass the $800 million bond issue in April is back for the KCI campaign.

Nevins will handle strategy and message. Phil Scaglia, former staffer and consultant for U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, heads the get-out-the-vote ground game.

On one level, the “ask” this fall should be easier than the spring bond campaign. The single-terminal plan does not involve higher taxes. All costs will be covered by money from airport users and airlines.

“Our main task will be communicating how the new terminal meets the needs of a growing city on the move through better travel options, billions in economic activity, and thousands of new jobs,” the summary that topped the pro-KCI poll said.

The summary said one of the campaign’s strongest arguments is that a new terminal “will provide KC with more and better flight options.”

But such a promise is out of the city’s control. That will be up to the airlines, who have said such improvements are likely but not guaranteed.

The campaign is taking advantage of rapid advances in voter analytics. Last month it assigned scores to a sample of the city’s 300,000 registered voters, based on the likelihood they will turn out in November, their level of airport support, and persuadability.

Nevins said the sample size was large enough to create an algorithm that scored all 300,000 of the city’s registered voters. The data collected will drive decisions about canvassing, television, direct mail and ads.

The goal is to knock on about 75,000 targeted doors.

“We’ll identify voters all over the city and turn them out regardless of geography,” Nevins said.

Because the election lands in an unusual spot on the Kansas City political calendar — November of an odd-numbered year — turnout could be as low as 10 percent to 12 percent, or 30,000 voters. Nevins estimates the high end at 20 percent.

A coalition of business leaders has made more than 100 presentations to civic organizations and employers about the economic importance of a new terminal.

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has teamed with the Kansas City Area Development Council and the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City to launch “A Better KCI” campaign.

The groups are making a big pitch to millennials, major users of the airport for business and pleasure, emphasizing that they have the most to gain from a new single terminal.

A website features videos filled with young professionals talking about KCI’s spartan atmosphere and lack of amenities — there are not many places to sit to charge phones, for instance.

Reardon, who has done more than 80 speaking appearances, used the Flights of Wine reception to conjure the image of a comfortable, passenger-friendly terminal with top-tier dining and more direct flights.

“We’re not talking about a shopping mall,” said Reardon, “we’re talking about liveability at the airport.”

Who’s going to pay for the campaign?

Political insiders estimate that an effective campaign could cost up to $4 million.

So far, the money has not been flowing in.

Filings by K.C. Transportation Transit and Tourism Committee, the campaign’s fund-raising vehicle, show contributions of just $425,000.

Nearly half is from two sources: health IT giant Cerner, the city’s largest private employer and a major user of the airport ($100,000) and the Heavy Constructors Association, an influential presence in city politics known by the shorthand “the Heavies” ($100,000).

Other big donors include a labor-backed political committee based in St. Louis, Carpenters Help In the Political Process ($50,000), Kansas City Power & Light ($50,000), Hallmark Cards ($25,000), Sprint ($25,000) and the law firm Husch Blackwell ($25,000), which served as outside counsel to the airport selection committee.

Burns & McDonnell was widely expected to be the winning bidder and to write a large check. Given Edgemoor’s selection, that is now unlikely.

“Burns and McDonnell has contributed a ton already,” said company vice president Ron Coker, referring to money spent on television spots promoting its selection, along with time and resources devoted to putting together its proposal.

But with many local jobs in construction and other trades likely to be created by the project, more union and industry funding is expected is expected to follow.

The board of the “Heavies” includes Bill Clarkson Jr., whose construction firm is a member of Edgemoor’s team.

James, Councilwoman Jolie Justus, co-chair of the selection committee, and Chamber president Reardon have been on the phone and in meetings pitching donors.

James said the contributions will “grow tremendously, very soon. We have large amounts (pledged). We’re simply waiting for them to go through their processes and get us a check.”

City and campaign officials expect Edgemoor to put up a big contribution.

“They will donate to the campaign and I think that will send a signal to a lot of people that they’re going to put their money where their mouth is,” said Nevins.

Who will oppose the campaign?

Political and civic leaders scoff at Citizens For Responsible Government, a small but persistent watchdog group that has opposed many of City Hall’s big-ticket projects. But they are effective.

With a petition initiative in 2014, the group cemented the requirement for the public to vote on KCI. It has slowed a developer’s work toward breaking ground on a downtown convention hotel.

“I really like Edgemoor’s approach but CFRG cannot support a single terminal until our (members) change their mind,” spokesman Dan Coffey wrote in an email to The Star. “And I don’t see any reason for them to do that.”

The group, which in years past had run on a shoestring budget, has raised more than $100,000 this year, according to filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

It spent much of that fighting other city initiatives earlier this year, but Coffey said they’re looking for donations anew for the KCI election.

“The people who usually contribute are contributing,” Coffey said.

He said he hasn’t collected too much money yet, but he hopes to raise at least $150,000.

Is there enough time?

Before he died earlier this month, political consultant Steve Glorioso implored the council to consider putting off a vote until April, the next slot for a municipal election.

Glorioso, who burnished his bona fides as a political sage by winning voter approval of a transient guest tax to fund construction of the Sprint Center, worried that the protracted selection left too little time for an effective campaign.

“In summary, a quick November election seems a needless risk,” Glorioso wrote in an August 13 email. “Surely the Mayor and Manager can explain this to all the stakeholders who share the desire to have a positive outcome in the end.”

James said a post-November election is not an option because the airlines have told the city that any further delay would force them to re-think their commitment to guaranteeing the debt from a new terminal. He added that the issue has been argued to death.

“There’s no one who can tell me what’s going to get better between now and April,” James said. “We’ve had the same conversation for six years.”

Bill Turque: 816-234-4259, @bturque

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt