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In Kansas City, tax breaks don't cure blight — they create sprawl

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Malls can't hide from their destinies. A Che Guevara belt buckle in the window of a former shoe store, for instance, signals a shopping center that might not be open for many more Christmases.

Che and Elvis fashions caught my eye on a recent walk around Metro North Mall at U.S. Highway 169 and Barry Road. The shopping center, which opened in 1976, is on its last legs. Vacancies appear to outnumber the going concerns. The Limited is gone. In its place are stores with names like Unique Stuff and Ultimate Gifts.

Metro North's limited future is also evident at JCPenney, one of the remaining anchor tennants. Signs on the doors announce that the store will close in August. "We are relocating to better serve you," the sign says. A map points to a shopping center under construction four miles to the west.

The sign says a lot about what passes for economic development in Kansas City. Taxpayers are enabling the construction of JCPenney's future home. And for what? To relocate an existing department store.

JCPenney is moving to Tiffany Springs MarketCenter. Work on the shopping center, which is near Interstate 29 and Missouri Highway 152, is approaching completion. The familiar signs of Home Depot, Target and Best Buy are in place, awaiting a spark of electricity.

Tiffany Springs MarketCenter sits in a tax-increment-financing district. TIF is a tool that cities can use to spur development in distressed areas. But in Kansas City, TIF is often used to make sprawl.

TIF districts north of the river outnumber those on Kansas City's east side by more than a two-to-one margin. As revitalization strategies go, this seems pretty senseless. But there it is. Kansas City's most powerful weapon against blight has been deployed more often in Clay and Platte counties than it has in the impoverished 3rd District.

The TIF that's helping Tiffany Springs MarketCenter is supposedly a model of good sense. City Hall signed off on it in 1999. The TIF district hugs the east side of I-29, from Tiffany Springs Parkway to Boardwalk Avenue. Almost $101 million in new roads and interchanges were built in this particular TIF. Most of the money to pay for the work comes from the sales and earnings taxes generated by Wal-Mart and other stores that cozied up to the nice new roads. People at City Hall call this TIF a "roads only" TIF because tax money is not being used to pay for buildings, as it is in the downtown Power & Light District. Also, the development is producing full property taxes, which isn't the case with most TIF projects.

So what's not to like?

For one, TIF is paying for most of the roads — but not all of them. The 1 percent citywide sales tax has provided $2.3 million for construction within the TIF area. The city's Aviation Department has kicked in $2.9 million.

There are hidden costs as well. Development along I-29 has demanded a lot out of Barry Road, which is just outside the TIF area. The city spent $7.1 million to improve the east-west thoroughfare between 2002 and 2007.

Earlier this year, the City Council approved an additional $1.3 million to widen Barry Road. When the spending recommendation came before the council, city staffers mentioned the burden that Tiffany Springs MarketCenter will add. (Barry Road handles about 40,000 vehicles a day.)

But what's a little congestion and ground-level ozone when Home Depot's coming, right? Oh, wait, that's not very exciting. Because there's already a Lowe's on the other side of 152. Yes, the city is incentivizing the development of a big-box store that's about a mile from an existing incentivized big-box store that sells the same stuff.

The redundancy is staggering. Tiffany Springs MarketCenter will feature a Target store. A few miles to the east, across the road from Metro North Mall, Target anchors an underperforming TIF area that the city created in 1996. That development, Barry Towne, has created less than half of the 3,900 jobs that were promised (“Not Hiring,” August 16, 2007).

The Tiffany Springs MarketCenter tenant list also includes a Best Buy, imperiling a Best Buy on Barry Road.

A TIF Commission fact sheet says 3,155 jobs will be created when the development along I-29 is finished. This projection is worthless. Committing what can only be called malpractice, the TIF Commission tends to disregard the simple idea that a new mall doesn't create business as much as it takes business from somewhere else. Shopping, after all, is not economic development — it's a result of it.

In this instance, Platte County's gain is Clay County's loss. JCPenney will jump the county line when it relocates to Tiffany Springs MarketCenter.

Jim Hampton, executive director of the Clay County Economic Development Council, is not crying foul, however. The Tiffany Springs project, he tells me in an e-mail, "should attract additional people from outside the area and will create a 'Northland Destination' [for] products and services."

Because nothing says "destination" like Famous Footwears spread four miles apart.

Rather than take a wide view, city officials look for small victories. The plan for Tiffany Springs MarketCenter was approved in 2006. During the discussion, then-Councilwoman Bonnie Sue Cooper sought assurances from the developers that the bright-orange Home Depot sign would be less garish.

Apparently, a hiking and biking trail will also be built near Tiffany Springs MarketCenter. I say "apparently" because I can't fathom that a planner would try to make something pleasurable out of a strip of land between a 585,000-square-foot "power center" and a cloverleaf highway interchange.

As a new JCPenney rises from the dirt near I-29, Metro North appears headed for do-not-resuscitate status. Of course, the mall was probably doomed anyway. Enclosed shopping centers, where the youth of America once found the latest fashions at Chess King and Merry-Go-Round, bite the dust with such frequency that they have their own Web site, Deadmalls.com.

Metro North is a throwback in more ways than one. It was built before Kansas City discovered its compulsion for giving incentives to PetSmart.

At least Metro North will die having stood on its own two feet. The same won't be written of its successors, which will be lucky to be peddling kitschy belt buckles 20 years from now.

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