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Warren's World

As the chairman of a powerful city agency, Republican operative Warren Erdman is the elephant in the room.


Warren Erdman is one of the city's most powerful men. He once accused me of being "fixated" on him.

I'll admit to being fascinated. See, I keep trying to figure out how he's able to balance all of the contradictions in his life.

Erdman has a big-time day job as a vice president for the Kansas City Southern railroad. He also has a long history of hard work on behalf of Missouri's Republican Party. He was a staffer in Gov. Kit Bond's office in the early '80s. He managed Bond's 1986 Senate campaign and then served as Bond's chief of staff before answering the call of the private sector and the house off Ward Parkway.

Then, in 2004, Erdman was a regional chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign. That's when I started to notice the inconsistencies in his work.

At the time, Kansas City leaders had appointed him to the board of the Economic Development Corporation, a mélange of lawyers, nonprofit heads and society types whose mission is to promote economic growth in town. I began to realize that Erdman's work for the Republican Party seemed to run against efforts to make Kansas City a good place to work and live.

Here's an example.

The EDC's board members go on and on about the importance of stem-cell research to the region's economic future. Kansas City's Stowers Institute has threatened to spend its $2 billion endowment elsewhere if Missouri keeps trying to outlaw certain kinds of research.

At the same time, Erdman's guy got to be president by riling up social conservatives who want science to stop at long division. The two Missouri counties that went hardest for Bush in '04 also went hardest against Question 2, last November's ballot amendment to protect stem-cell research.

I badgered Erdman about his support of Bush, who is no friend of science, when I wrote about stem cells a couple of years ago ("Big Matt Attack," March 10, 2005).

"I have no knowledge of the president ever speaking out on somatic cell nuclear transfer," Erdman told me at the time, using a then-fashionable term for embryonic stem-cell research. But he was performing contortions.

In fact, Bush supported a ban on the type of research that Erdman and the other EDC board members have tried desperately to protect.

Recently, Erdman told me that his pal the governor, Matt Blunt, "was the most visible advocate of Question 2." Actually, the most visible advocate was probably former Sen. John Danforth, who appeared in television ads. Blunt supported Question 2, but he hasn't been the leading advocate that Erdman says he is. Earlier this month, when it came time to make a new appointment to the state's Life Sciences Research Board, a group that works to enhance Missouri's status as a research hub, Blunt named Rep. Robert Onder, a St. Louis physician who helped organize the effort against Question 2.

Erdman took over as chair of the EDC in 2005. Since then, watching his contortions has only grown more intriguing.

Then-Councilman John Fairfield once told his fellow EDC members that cities across the country were in danger of losing community-development grants. At the time, Bush was proposing a 30 percent reduction in the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

As Fairfield spoke, I was waiting for someone to needle Erdman about how he helped keep Bush in office. But the room was silent as Erdman thanked Fairfield for his report and the board moved on.

Here's my most recent observation of his twerpish tendencies.

At 7:30 in the morning on May 18, the EDC board was having its first meeting since Mark Funkhouser took office. Settling in with their rolls and coffee, the board members welcomed Kansas City's new mayor. Everyone was gracious, but as he sat down in Kay Barnes' old chair, Funkhouser looked like a successful revolutionary who'd taken over the palace.

Many of the people on the EDC board had opposed Funkhouser's election. That's because the nonprofit EDC gets city money to administer tax-increment financing — and Funkhouser's TIF criticism was one of his campaign's rallying cries. As city auditor and as a candidate, Funkhouser harped on the EDC for its lax procedures, which he said allowed developers to game the city.

The day before this meeting, independent consultants had proved Funkhouser right. On May 17, a group of urban economists and financial advisers presented a report to the City Council. The report suggests that business interests reaped undeserved millions by taking advantage of the city's wanton approach to economic development.

Without launching into a barrage of I told you sos — to which he was entitled — Funkhouser encouraged EDC board members to read the analysis.

Chairman Erdman nodded as Funkhouser made his request. The nod said, "Yes, Mayor, you're so right. This is very important."

Erdman told me after the meeting that he hadn't read the report, even though copies had circulated for weeks.

I'd been wanting to ask Erdman about the consultants' analysis since I got my copy. It shreds one of his favorite talking points.

Erdman has said that Kansas City is at a disadvantage when it comes to incentives for developers. He makes it sound as though cities in Kansas just print money for developers who show up with sketches on cocktail napkins.

Turns out, he's full of it. The consultants determined that Kansas City had an "enormous" array of development tools at its disposal.

Kansas City, for instance, gives tax breaks to luxury condo developments. Other major cities tie the same tax breaks to a greater good, such as affordable housing.

Kansas City is also unique in that it guarantees the bonds that back some TIF projects. When projects underperform — and they do — the City Council has to reach into the general fund to make up the shortfall. Using history as a guide, the consultants predict that Kansas City will eventually pay more than $122 million to make up for the dumb TIF deals that Erdman and his EDC pals have allowed to litter the town.

I had called and e-mailed Erdman. He had ignored me. So I confronted him after the May 18 EDC board meeting.

I asked him for proof of Kansas City's supposed disadvantages when it came to economic development. The evidence he provided was anecdotal: He mentioned the Kansas Speedway as an example of a project lost to the emerald fields of Kansas.

But as the consultants point out, the tool that built the speedway and other attractions in western Wyandotte County, called STAR bonds, is seldom used because so few projects qualify for it.

Erdman seemed annoyed.

"I'm a volunteer for this organization," he told me. "We have an organized process, an organized schedule. I'm fulfilling my duties in that manner. Once we've done our organized review, I'll have something to say about it. But I haven't stopped my many other responsibilities to meet with your deadline or anyone else's."

Erdman told me to get bent, in other words. Right back at you, pal.

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