By Debra DeCoster
Wyandotte County’s Unified Board of Commissioners recently approved a resolution that brings the proposed downtown “Healthy Campus” closer to reality.
The measure, approved with a 9-1 vote during the Commission’s November 30 meeting, allows the Unified Government to use up to $2 million to buy land at 10th Street and Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. The resolution also allows the Unified Government to fund pre-construction architectural and engineering plans for the $37 million project, which will be anchored by a grocery store and community center. Unified Government officials said they are close to signing a letter of intent to negotiate with a grocery store operator. The YMCA of Greater Kansas City would operate the community center.
“The community deserves a thriving downtown, and this will be the largest capital investment in downtown in two generations,” said Mayor Mark Holland.
Holland proposed the Healthy Campus in 2013 and has raised $6 million from philanthropists to help defray some of the costs. The project would provide a high quality, full-service grocer committed to buying local food, offering healthy food programs, cooking programs, and partnering with the YMCA on cooperative programming. The YMCA of Greater Kansas City would focus on youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.
The Unified Government hopes that the Healthy Campus will give residents living near downtown access to much-needed amenities as well as help the area take steps toward improving its health outcomes. Wyandotte County consistently ranks near the bottom of health outcomes in annual statewide rankings.
Holland had hoped to see his vision for the Healthy Campus completed during his term. But with his loss in the November 7 mayoral election, he will depend on his successor, David Alvey, to continue the project.
“I am turning it over to the next administration,” Holland said, “and hopefully they will continue to move it forward and get it across the finish line.”
Mayor-elect Alvey said in an interview: “We have to fulfill the need for a grocery store in the downtown northeast area. That has to be done. I understand the difficulty of attracting and retaining a grocery in an urban area.”
During the Commission meeting, Commissioner Ann Murguia, District 3, stated that she was not comfortable agreeing to spend $2 million without a signed contract by a grocer.
“Currently, the Unified Government does not have a grocery tenant,” Murguia said. “There is no legal binding contract of any provider to occupy the grocery space and provide groceries. I am absolutely an advocate for a grocery store in the northeast, but I am reluctant to spend $2 million on the hopes that a grocery store provider will sign a deal.”
Commissioner Hal Walker, At-Large District 2, was in favor of the project, but felt that it might have been better to wait until the newly elected officials are on board. Holland urged the Commission to move forward on the project, explaining that the Unified Government had to act now so that it could apply for the New Market Tax Credits that would help fund the grocery store and the community center.
Holland stated that the deadline to apply for the tax credits is approaching and that this could be the last year for the tax credit program, depending on the outcome of tax legislation moving through Congress.
Holland also addressed concerns that the operating budget for the project had increased $1.3 million. “I think the question we need to ask [is]: are we prepared to spend money in the urban area?” Holland said. “It is a $1.8 million dollar annual investment and I think the northeast deserves it.”
Alvey expressed some concern during the interview about the cost increase.
“The commissioners before were informed that it would be a $500,000 cost and now it is at $1.8 million,” he said. “My opinion is it should never get to the point where these things are surprises to the commissioners. As much as possible we need to be straight forward on what we are asking commissioners to commit to.”
If the Unified Government can’t secure a grocer for the campus project, Alvey said it would change the dynamics of the project.
“We would have to do another evaluation of that project, if that happens,” he said, “We have to make the case to our taxpayers that we are trying to fulfill an obligation of government to help meet the needs of its citizens.”
Several residents stood before the Commission and stated their support for the healthy campus. Beth Low-Smith with KC Healthy Kids said: “Most of the neighborhoods north of State Avenue and east of [Interstate] 635 are low access to healthy grocery retail….Furthermore, hundreds of families in neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed campus don’t own a car and they don’t live within a half-mile or comfortable walking distance of a full service grocery store. We hope that you will act now while this opportunity exists.”
Katherine Kelly, Executive Director of Cultivate Kansas City, said that the proposed grocery store operator would offer excellent service to the community.
“They are known for their support of local farms and local businesses,” Kelly said. “As someone who represents farmers, we have a farming community that would benefit from their presence. The store will take local food dollars and reinvest them back into the community.”