By Paul Thompson
After months of negotiations, the Kansas City, Missouri City Council finally voted on Thursday, February 8 to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Edgemoor Infrastructure and Real Estate to construct Kansas City’s new single terminal airport.
The decision, however, was anything but a rubber stamp.
Every single Council member, along with Mayor Sly James, rose to their feet to explain their stance during a lengthy debate. The passionate monologues left attendees uncertain of the outcome until the final 8-5 vote: Dan Fowler, Quinton Lucas, Jermaine Reed, Katheryn Shields, Jolie Justus, Alissia Canady, Kevin McManus and Mayor Sly James voted yes; Scott Wagner, Heather Hall, Teresa Loar, Lee Barnes and Scott Taylor voted against.
The airport debate drew a large crowd to the 26th floor City Council chambers, with many of the attendees wearing ‘Ready for Takeoff’ stickers to show their support for Edgemoor. The room broke into applause following the Mayor’s speech in favor of approval, and erupted once again when it became clear that the Council was going to approve the MOU.
Nearly two months after a supermajority of the Council rejected the initial version of the MOU, a substantially modified incarnation of the document has been approved. But the Thursday, Feb. 8 legislative session had little in common with the friendly confines of the Airport Committee, which unanimously voted on February 1 to pass the MOU along to the full Council.
After that Feb. 1 Airport Committee meeting, 4th District Councilwoman Jolie Justus – longstanding chair of the committee – cautioned that she wasn’t taking anything for granted despite the tenor in the room that day.
“The bottom line is, though, we had nine people in December say loud and clear (on the Council) that they had concerns with the MOU. Not all of those nine people were in the room here today,” Justus said. “One of the things we have to do is continue to follow up with everybody on the Council to make sure that all of their concerns have been addressed to the best of our ability.”
Justus’s comment proved prescient over the course of the week that followed. On Feb. 7, 1st District Councilman Scott Wagner published a lengthy Facebook post which questioned the Edgemoor development team’s ability to complete the project on time and within budget. His concerns stemmed from conversations with individuals prominently involved in the airport improvement development at the Seattle-Tacoma airport, where KCI project partner Clark Construction has overseen a project that has seen heavy delays and an ever-rising budget.
“When the RFP/Q submittal was sent in from the Edgemoor team for the Kansas City Single Terminal, there were no airport projects given as references. After talking with Sea-Tac it is no wonder,” Wagner wrote. “This is a client who is frustrated and trying to improve a bad situation. When they heard Kansas City chose a team with Clark and Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, LLP, they expressed amazement that we would do such a thing.”
Wagner relayed his concerns during an impassioned speech on the floor of the Council chamber, going so far as to apologize to Mayor Sly James for being unwilling to support the MOU. After the vote, Wagner spoke briefly with Edgemoor managing director Geoff Stricker. The councilman told the Northeast News what he said to Stricker.
“I told him, as I told the Mayor, the vote is over and I will do whatever I can to help move this project forward,” said Wagner. “Obviously I’ve stated my positions and why I had those positions; but the vote is over and the Council has decided. Now we’re going to move forward.”
Perhaps the deciding votes in favor of the Edgemoor MOU came from 3rd District Councilman Quinton Lucas and 6th District Councilman Kevin McManus, who both confided afterwards that they didn’t make their final decision until the day of the vote.
“It just became clear to me the overriding interest in just getting this done and moving forward,” said McManus. “We still have to get through to a development agreement and closing, but I think this puts us on a track that will allow us to move forward.”
McManus parted with fellow 6th District Councilman Scott Taylor on the vote. During the legislative session, Taylor spoke openly of his preference to select Burns & McDonnell – who is headquartered in the 6th District – to construct the more than billion-dollar airport project. McManus acknowledged that the interests of Burns & McDonnell crossed his mind during the process.
“I’m sensitive to all local companies, and they are a very important local company in my district,” McManus said. “But at the end of the day, the question before us is, ‘Do you approve this MOU or not?’ That has to be at the forefront.”
Still, McManus agreed with many other Council members that outside pressure was immense as the MOU vote drew near. Second District Councilwoman Teresa Loar, for instance, said that in a lifetime of politics, “there was nothing as acrimonious and as hateful and as rancorous as this has been.”
McManus said his phone rang constantly as the vote loomed.
“My phone literally stopped worked yesterday, just because of the numbers of calls to my personal cell phone,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lucas suggested after the legislative session that his vote in favor of the MOU wasn’t finalized until he reviewed the final minority and women-owned business (MBE/WBE) language in the hours before the vote. Once that language was settled to his liking, Lucas felt compelled to support the document.
“The question was whether we had a good deal, and I think that we got to a point where we had a deal that Kansas Citians can be proud of and that protects our interests long-term,” Lucas said. “I trust the process. I think we needed to stand up today for the institution.”
Lucas also commented on the finality of the Council’s Feb. 8 decision, comparing the high cost of executing the $23.2 million reimbursement agreement (if the City backs out of the deal) to backing out of a marriage at the eleventh hour.
“Basically we’re in the same situation,” said Lucas. “We have this multi-million dollar obligation, we have an exclusive contract with them for negotiations (until) next September, so we’re not backing out of this deal in six months unless something calamitous happens.”
On whether the Council would have permanent fractures after the hostile MOU negotiations, he acknowledged that there were rifts throughout the process.
“Every time there was disagreement, it seemed to get fairly personal,” Lucas said. “I thought that was exceedingly unnecessary, and I share in some of colleagues’ comments that that’s not the way to do business.”
One member who remained steadfastly in favor of continuing forward with Edgemoor was 3rd District Councilman Jermaine Reed, who serves as co-chair of the Airport Committee and voted in favor of the MOU that was rejected by the full City Council in December. After the Council approved the MOU by a narrow margin on Feb. 8, Reed struck a unifying tone.
“I feel great, but I feel better for the citizens of Kansas City, the flying public, and all who have been involved in the process to get us to this point,” Reed said.