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Kansas City invested in the Power & Light District using questionable data from C.H. Johnson Consulting

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Last week, I played watchman at the Power & Light District, walking through the downtown fun-o-rama and pulling on doors to see how many of them actually opened.

Parts of the taxpayer-subsidized district opened a year and a half ago. Others parts remain dark. I encountered two dozen or so sets of locked doors. Tarps in festive colors hung in the windows of shops that lacked merchandise and had floors of gravel.

More venues will open, of course. The six-screen Mainstreet movie house is set for a May 1 grand opening in the old Empire Theater, a 1921 beauty nearly lost to demolition. Wolverine ticket buyers will walk on the building's original terrazzo floor.

That's cool, but my inspection was prompted by a dour financial report. In February, the city's Finance Department reported that last year's sales in the district missed projections by a tidy 84 percent. That's quite a shortfall, and it has meaning for people who live and work in Kansas City. The city will reach into the general fund this year to make up for Power & Light's inability to deliver tax revenue.

To be sure, the Cordish Co., the Power & Light District's developer, has been slow to lure tenants. But that isn't the whole story. Can't be. There's too much happening in the district for 16 percent achievement to make sense.

So I asked the city for more information.

As it happens, tenancy explains only about half of the shortfall. According to the city's Finance Department, occupancy at year's end was 43 percent of what had been projected.

Clearly, then, the bars and restaurants that have opened aren't doing as well as the district's backers had hoped. Testifying to this condition, Cordish and area contractors have sued some of the restaurant operators for payment.

Just how poorly are the businesses doing? The city says sales per square foot are 63 percent of projections.

Of course, the economic downturn is to blame for some of this. Spending $30 and upward on a slab of steak is nearly pornographic when people are losing work and accepting pay cuts.

But just as likely, the city relied on junk data when it made an unprecedented financial bet.

Running the numbers was a Chicago-based outfit called C.H. Johnson Consulting.

C.H. Johnson's math whizzes took their first look at the Power & Light District's possibilities back in 2004, at the request of the city-funded Economic Development Corporation. They wrote a report that was used to convince the state of Missouri to approve $106 million in subsidies.

The project evolved, and in 2005 C.H. Johnson's abacus squad revisited their projections. The data was crucial. The city and state ultimately committed more than $500 million. The breathtaking investment was to be repaid with the taxes generated once the project was up and running.

C.H. Johnson's 2005 report looks thorough. It contains maps, charts and graphs. It analyzes effective buying income, population growth and hotel-room stays.

Its conclusion: A properly executed entertainment district would attract visitors, capture the wealth of Kansas residents and remake downtown.

The report made it seem as though the city would be foolish not to do the Cordish deal. The C.H. Johnson team calculated that the district would produce $619 million in tax revenue over 25 years — more than enough to cover the bonds the city issued to acquire the land and assist with construction.

Armed with C.H. Johnson's data, city officials projected confidence. Deb Hinsvark, the city's chief financial officer at the time, told the City Council in 2006 that the city was prepared in the event the Power & Light District fell short of expectations — though she thought that was unlikely. Mayor Kay Barnes, who pushed for an array of taxpayer-supported economic-development projects, said the city was in "excellent" financial shape.

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