By Paul Thompson
On May 3, 2016, Kansas City, Missouri Mayor Sly James sat in front of a microphone in the City Manager’s 29th floor City Hall office to announce an indefinite delay to a vote for a new single terminal airport.
At the time, internal polling suggested that the vast majority of Kansas City residents were against construction of a new airport, even as the airlines claimed they would back the bonds required for construction. An April 2016 poll found that 84% of responders still viewed Kansas City International favorably, and only 39% would vote yes on an airport ballot question.
“It’s clear that the city is not ready to move forward with the KCI conversation at this point,” said a dejected James at the time. “For me, it was extremely hard. I have not been one to ever walk away from a tough issue.”
Eighteen months later, James returned to the City Manager’s 29th floor office to celebrate a resounding election day victory for a new single terminal airport. Despite the indefinite delay, a short-lived Swiss challenge, multiple attempts at a Request for Qualifications/Proposals, baseless accusations of conflicts of interest, and countless tales of palace intrigue, voters had come around on one of Kansas City’s signature, long-standing debates. The 45-year-old Kansas City International Airport will be transformed into a brand-new, more than $1 billion single terminal.
Everywhere you looked in Kansas City on Tuesday, November 7, voters offered overwhelming support for the new airport.
The first results trickled in from the Northland, with encouraging numbers for #NewKCI supporters. By around 8 p.m. – roughly an hour after the polls closed – the results began to crystallize; with more than 11,000 votes counted between them, Clay and Platte Counties both hovered over 70% approval. When the Kansas City Election Board (KCEB) offered its first update at 8:36 p.m. (and 39 seconds), 48% of its precincts were reporting. At that point, 15,075 were in favor of the single terminal, while just 4,028 were opposed; good for an astounding 80% approval rate.
The final results didn’t significantly alter the narrative. KCEB ultimately reported 77% approval out of 42,177 votes; Clay County reported 70.5% approval out of 16,359 votes; and Platte County reported just shy of 74% approval out of 7,791 votes. Heck, even Cass County’s lone voter approved the single terminal. In total, 66,328 Kansas City residents voted in the election, and 49,950 cast their ballot in favor; good for a 75% landslide.
By the morning of Wednesday, November 8, City leaders were ready for a hard-earned victory lap.
“Regardless of any of the other stuff that floated around, every single thing that was done in this process was done with the best interests of this city in mind,” James said. “We did all of that because we knew that if we could get past this hump and get the single terminal, it would open doors for this city, and opportunities that we have not yet had.”
City Manager Troy Schulte discussed what the surprisingly robust support from constituents means for Kansas City.
“This is a tremendous validation of where I think this city is headed,” Schulte said. “For them to overwhelmingly approve a new terminal is, I think, a statement that they share an enthusiasm for the renaissance that Kansas City is enjoying.”
Schulte also discussed the next steps moving forward, saying that he expects a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Edgemoor Infrastructure to be introduced to the City Council on Thursday, November 30. Once the MOU and final contract are approved, the project can begin.
The design of the airport includes a convenient multi-level curbside area that separates departures and arrivals, as well as larger waiting areas at each gate that can accommodate more travelers. the 750,000 square-foot terminal will also include 35 gates, 6,500 parking spaces and a robust community benefit agreement outlined by the City Council in a resolution intended to guide the MOU process. Edgemoor has previously stated on the record that they have no problems with the community benefit agreement outlined in the resolution.
Schulte added that he expects the City to hold “at least six” open houses to provide residents from each Council district an opportunity to offer input on the final design. The City and Edgemoor are targeting the fall of 2018 for a groundbreaking ceremony, with the opening of a new single terminal expected sometime in 2021.
After laying out the timeline, City leaders answered questions from the media. James, Schulte and City Council members in attendance answered questions about the Memorandum of Understanding, the community benefit agreement, and how the construction process might impede travelers. While the City leaders opted not to divulge details of an ongoing negotiation, Schulte did discuss the limited impact of construction.
“Actually, it should be fairly minimal,” Schulte said. “They’ll notice some disruption as they pass by Terminal A, but the beauty of this is that we can basically run Terminal B and C without any significant disruption of service for the next five years.”
As the press conference concluded, James was asked about the 18-month saga of despondence and triumph that brought him from the 29th floor of City Hall and back again.
“Taking it off the docket was painful because it was something that we had been working on for quite some time,” James said. “It was painful, not only for me, not only for the city; it was painful for the airlines, who said that they wanted to expand here and that they really wanted a vote last August.”
James also took the opportunity to credit Burns & McDonnell for their work in bringing the City back from the brink of disaster.
“I remember some tough phone calls after that happened. We asked the business community to step up, and thank God that Burns & Mac did step up, because they got the conversation started on a different path,” James said. “People can say what they want to about all of that – I really don’t care – but the fact of the matter is, when we sat here for a year trying to find a solution to a problem, they’re the ones that brought us a solution, and that’s why we’re here today.”
“At the end of the day, we knew this was the right thing to do, to get this airport built for this city,” James added. “We stuck with it, and we’re getting it done.”